An Upbeat Playlist for Stressful Times

We entered singing. My sister and I had ascended the stairs into the “great room” of Belmont Village to visit our grandmother, and the joint was jumping. Residents had gathered to hear the musical stylings of a guest singer. It was impossible to refrain, so why try? We opened our voices and danced over to her. (It is easy to spot her, the redhead, from behind, or really from any direction.)

When she saw us, she bestowed her perennial gift, a contagious, nearly-crying smile that says better than words can, “I’m so happy to see you.”

I needed that. Then the singer said, “Remember, music is the best medicine.” I needed that, too. This past Sunday, at dance class, the music, the dancing, the singing along. I need it. You know you need it, too. These are trying times. Play your music loud and often.

Without further ado, a (starter) playlist for stressful times. Play loud.  Play often. Dance. Sing. Repeat.

  1. Michael Jackson (just about anything, but let’s go with Wanna Be Starting Something
  2. And another Michael Jackson, Black or White
  3. American Authors, Best Day of My Life
  4. Marvin Gaye, How sweet it is (to be loved by you)
  5. Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
  6. Kinky Boots, Raise You Up

(And, for a change, try a nice quiet 10-12 minutes with the Calm App gratitude meditation. Be grateful for your lungs, and legs, and all the other parts needed for dancing your stress away.)

Love,

Laura

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Breathe in the New Year

Never have we needed a new year like we do now.

Summer’s blessing of an unhurried pace is already forgotten. We have reverted to our scheduled-beings ways: Wake up. Get dressed. Make lunches. Kiss goodbyes. Go.

Go go go.

In the car, I check the news radio for breathless reports of hurricanes and earthquakes. Over breakfast, I read the L.A. Times’  latest science on earthquake forecasting. I carry the anxiety of the bystander as I prepare for doomsday. I buy gallons of water and canned food. I buy candy, because if you’re eating Chef Boyardee and diced peaches, you deserve as much chocolate and red vines as you can get your hands on. I buy flashlights, and work gloves, and put sneakers in arm’s reach of everyone’s bed.

I need to breathe. I downloaded a meditation app a month ago. Every morning my phone gently reminds me “It’s time to meditate,” and every morning I promptly and consistently…ignore it. Ten minutes? Maybe later.

My kids need to breathe. They’re stressed, beyond the norm. Okay, I put on the app during breakfast as background sounds of trickling water and birdsong plays. We take a deep breath.

Ahh. That felt good.

The Jewish new year is like the app, trying to break through my day and schedule, and “I’ll get to it later’s” — a gentle reminder I have to choose to accept: Take a deep breath, it says.

I do. I will. Ahh, feels good.

Happy new year. Love, Laura

(You can read my new year’s posts from last year , 2013 and 2009, and reprinted below)

 


2016: “The Only Three Words You Need”

Every year I go to Rosh Hashanah services with expansive hope, born out by experience, that some wisdom and truth from our tradition will land softly on my heart and I will take it with me through the next year as comfort and north star.

For me, the wisdom and truth I longed for this year came in a brief comment by our rabbi. She mentioned that the author Anne Lamott has written there are only three prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow. This became my simple and complete prayer. I stood with my eyes closed and silently repeated these words instead of the pages of prayers in my hands. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.”

There it was, instantly. A physical transformation, a steady flow of peace. Thank you thank you thank you thank you — for this loving, brilliant man standing by my side; for the blossoming young man next to him; for the kind, curious boy at home nursing a cold while watching (inappropriate) cartoons. Thank you thank you thank you thank you. And for the challenges I have to face, Help me help me help me help me.

I do love December 31st, how we light up the darkest night sky with twinkly lights and candles and fireworks. And I love our Jewish New Year’s Eve in Autumn, when there’s still enough light to see the world by, to embrace it and thank it for its beauty, its blue sky above brown California mountain ridges, its temperate Pacific waves tumbling toward me as I gather up my burdens and transfer them to a handful of bread crumbs or shells and let them fly into the ocean.

For all of this, the gratitude and the challenges, the beauty of these people and this earth, the final prayer…Wow.

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2013: “Ancient History and Two Hours Ago”

Dear Rabbi Reuben,

This time of year always gets me. I don’t think of myself as religious, but there I am in services. Liking services. Needing services.

I sing along (mostly) with the Hebrew prayers, even though I don’t understand all of them, even though what I do understand I don’t always agree with. There is something in the familiarity of the rhythms and rhymes, the melodies and memories. Memories call me from when I was twelve, sitting in a row of other 12-year-old girls required to attend Shabbat services as part of our Bat Mitzvah year. I think about my son studying for his Bar Mitzvah now, and I feel peace and wonder knowing that he is learning these prayers not only for one Shabbat morning in February, but for the decades of Shabbats that will hopefully follow. He need not realize that these melodies and prayers will stay with him, guide him, fill him with love and hope whenever he may need it, years from now or next week.

I suppose these prayers were with me before I was twelve. They were there when Rabbi Winokur handed me my pre-school diploma, they were embedded in our three-year-old voices singing, “The animals, they came on, they came on in twosies twosies, elephants and kangaroosies roosies!”

The prayers have been there, if it’s not too time-travel-mystic of me, since my parents were dragged to “make an appearance” in their grandparents’ Orthodox shuls in Boyle Heights and Pico/Fairfax, where they heard unintelligible, unpenetrable Hebrew chanting. And so on.

There are prayers I don’t say. That don’t bring me peace. Like the one that proclaims “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” I don’t buy that literal God-writing business. But there I am in services anyway, because you add your spin, that these words remind us that all we have is today. That all the good we are going to do in the world should happen right now.

Next we arrive at a prayer listing the traits of God – compassion and forgiveness and kindness and mercy. This prayer sends my mind back two hours, to my younger son’s loss of composure this morning when asked (okay, ordered) to turn off the television because he had already watched a cartoon and it was time to play or get dressed. I think of the heat and anger that consumed him, the words that came out of his mouth directed at me, the stormy damage he caused to his room when sent there to cool down. For some reason today I stayed cool, too, let him settle into whatever books he uncovered in the process of forgetting what it was he was so angry about.

After a little while, I brought him his clothes for temple (he loves to dress up so this wasn’t a problem) and we spoke as though intemperate words had never been uttered. My forgiveness was my not asking for an apology, or bringing up the episode, which he knew was not his best moment. I dressed him and blessed him and his full of passion ways. Compassion and forgiveness and kindness and mercy.

I am grateful that my boys’ ears were in the presence of your words today – that attitude is everything. I hope they heard that everyone feels loss and disappointment, so they won’t feel so alone when it’s their turn. I am grateful for your emphasis on the value of showing up for people, and also what showing up means for participating in life. I am grateful that the sounds and words of our people’s prayers and melodies washed over them, as they sat bookended between my parents. I could turn and see them from a distance, they looked bigger, and my father’s hair grayer, than the images I hold of each of them in my mind. (My mother looked beautiful; that’s a constant.) I am grateful that these words and prayers and melodies were sinking into their depths in ways they may not consciously remember, but which they will no doubt access on some Rosh Hashanah many years from now, wherever their days may take them.

With love and appreciation for all these gifts,

Laura


2009: “Looking for Autumn at Low Tide”

We said goodbye to summer yesterday, again. The first one—the day before school started—didn’t take. My mind was still in pajamas. This goodbye was official. Equinox and all.

As a Sunday of lazing about moved toward evening, Christopher and I decided we’d go to the beach—where else to bid adieu to all things Summer? Our kids refused to come. Even Emmett was adamant: “I’d rather watch football than go to the beach!” he spat. Aaron concurred, disgusted by our proposal: “And I’d rather watch Elmo!”

Like angels conjured from our collective prayer, Grandparents materialized on our front porch, offering their time. I grabbed my flip flops and my man and we ran off.

The tide was low and we walked in wet sand, water gracing our toes. We saw the neighborhood Chabadniks praying the last of Rosh Hashanah, a towel-draped woman in a beach chair raising her martini glass, a toddler in soggy underwear rushing the ocean. All saying goodbye in their way. I stretched my arms wide toward the sunset. I resolved to shake the sand out of my brain and focus. Fall is here, time to hunker down.

It’s hard to tell it’s Autumn by looking out my window this morning. But if I pay attention: I see the sunshine casts its light on the blue tiled table from a longer angle. I feel the tickle in the back of my throat that warns the first cold is coming. I see dark purple leaves scattered on the grass.

I try to forget that this purple plum tree is dying. I know it is, but at least for the next few months its will have company.

 

 

Why This Mom Relaxes into Summer When the End is Near

Around our town the burgeoning sound of children’s protest and despair can be heard rising up toward the burnt July sky, as they realize that with the arrival of August, we are dangerously close to the first day of school, bearing down like a runaway freight train too close to stop before it smashes us. If the stewards of your school district also have decreed that summer ends mid-August, then you too have heard these sounds, the “why oh why’s” and the “woe is me’s” with which I fully concur; school should start in September.

But the calendar is also why I have finally relaxed into the pace of unscheduled lazy summer days. I did not have either the foresight, spine, or budgetary willingness to sign my kids up for endless camps. So with me working from home, they were left to their own devices — really, they were left alone to interact only with their devices, if only I would leave them alone. You must know that means the first half of summer featured ample nagging on my part. (Me: “Go play!” Them: “We are playing!” Me: “I meant outside!” Them: “Where’s the extension cord?”) I kid.

But with only two weeks left, I can let go! Now it’s not weeks of this conflict stretching before me, it’s mere days. So I surrender to days that have no goals or plans besides waking up and staying in pajamas until at long last someone must walk the dogs or go to the market because we are hungry. Days that are not filled with unique enriching activities, but if I’m lucky have been sprinkled with boogie boarding and soccer at the beach, water balloons or card games. And days that are filled with, yes, truly countless hours of xBox and YouTube videos. And I think, what was I so worried about? Will I remember to relax when next summer comes?

For now, August is upon us. There are only two weeks left. Have a great summer.

From Survivor to Wonder Woman in 8 Days.

Eight days ago, over Memorial Day weekend, we took our kids to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Most years we fritter away these school vacation days doing nothing special, but this year I was The Mom I Keep Meaning to Be, at least for a day. The visit matched the meaning of the holiday — Remembering.

We took the one hour tour, then listened to a survivor speak. His testimony — death marches, concentration camps, losing his mother and grandparents, but surviving, and even finding his brother and father — was harrowing, yet somehow also uplifting. Here he was telling us about the greatest evil and cruelty the world has known, but also telling us how he later met his wives (all 3 of them), and introducing his daughter and two grandsons in the audience. He held the rapt attention of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational audience for over an hour, and we would have stayed as long as he could speak.

A tough visit like that must be balanced with sweets and joy, so we also ate lunch at L.A.’s famous Dupar’s restaurant. That’s how we do. We remember the holy hell — because we have to — and then we take a big bite out of life. Because we’re still here.

Eight days later, we watched Wonder Woman. Did you know that the original comic strip Wonder Woman’s first villains were the Nazis? (I read that here.) As cool as it was to see powerful women warriors on the big screen (it brought the L.A. Times’ Lorraine Ali and others to tears), what moved me more was that the actress embodying the strongest, fiercest, most unstoppable (and, yeah, super gorgeous) woman in the universe…is a Jew. It was like the entire Jewish population was saying in unison, “How you like us now, Hitler? We are STILL FREAKIN‘ HERE!”

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Not only that (and perhaps I’m taking this Jewish woman thing too far, but indulge me), but Wonder Woman’s entire existence is for tikkun olam, healing the world, the most central Jewish value of all, a value generations of Jewish women and men have striven to achieve and pass down to the next generation. The can be no greater healing of the world than peace.

I am aware as I write this that fifty years ago today, the 19-year-old state of Israel, a refuge for Europe’s remaining Jews, faced “an ominous build-up of Arab forces along its borders” (History.com), and shut it down. I am aware as I write this that Israel continues to struggle to find a lasting peace (with multiple points of view even among Jews as to how to accomplish that). And I am aware as I write this that anti-Semitism, hidden and blatant, continues to flourish all over the world.

I don’t expect a movie to heal the world. It’s an amusement, an entertainment. But, for me, this movie was something more. In its small way, our Jewish Wonder Woman resounded with the message carried over from our museum outing one week before: We’re still here.


(Much has been written about the Jewish Wonder Woman, including this piece about the first Jewish woman illustrator of the Wonder Woman comic, this in Slate, and of course this Tweet from Scandal’s Josh Malina: “FU, bds.”

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Writer’s Life: Camille Di Maio

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Author Camille Di Maio and I have a couple things in common: we both like to belt out show tunes on a whim, and to have travel adventures. Someday I hope to add to that list what she has accomplished today — the publication of a second novel. Today marks publication day for Camille’s second novel, BEFORE THE RAIN FALLS — no easy feat for a home-schooling mother of four! Meet Camille:

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

I have four children, ages 18, 16, 12, and 8. What I have learned through homeschooling them and running a large business out of our home is that they are watching everything. Whether any of us is aware of it, they are influenced by our every action, positive and negative. How did that affect my writing? It motivated me to press on through all the hardships that come with writing a book — finishing it in the first place, receiving rejection letters from agents, and pushing through difficulties to achieve a dream. I thought that writing a book was something I would do after they were grown, but through the process, I realized that it was so very important that they were there to see it all play out. Whatever they choose to do in the future, they will face adversity. They need an example of perseverance. So, the need to set a good example affected my writing in that it propelled me to write in the first place.

  1. Where do you write? What do you love about it?

My favorite place to write is a coffee shop. It can be hectic to write at home (although truthfully, that’s where most of it takes place). I’m an introvert at heart, so I love the buzz of having people around me but the privacy of  being in my little cocoon. I also love to write at a beach. The vastness of water is so inspiring to me. We are making a big life change to move from Texas to the East Coast, so that we will have more opportunities to enjoy a coastal life!

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

My favorite motto comes from (Saint) Mother Teresa of Calcutta:  “Let no one come to you without leaving better or happier.” It is paramount to me that every encounter I have with someone is positive and loving. This is not always possible depending on the circumstances, but I can say that I try with everything I have. The smallest things can make or break a person’s day.

  1. Who inspires you?

My Aunt Cheryl inspires me. There is nothing she won’t try, no adventure she won’t go on, and she boldly sported a bald head as she fought through two bouts of cancer. She is unashamedly herself and her thoughtfulness knows no boundaries. She always puts others first. I aspire to be half the woman that she is.

  1. What charity or community service are you passionate about?

For many years, I have run an unofficial group called Camille’s Theater Club. I organize group tickets for hundreds of people when Broadway shows tour through San Antonio. This has helped many families — including my own — receive huge discounts on ticket prices, introducing many people to theater who might not otherwise have been able to afford it. Many times, a group of us met before a show for dinner, and that camaraderie was so much fun. Sometimes we wait at the stage door to meet the stars of the show. We have seen some amazing performances and created great memories.

  1. What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

Right now, I am reading an early copy of THE WEIGHT OF LIES by Emily Carpenter. It is my favorite book of the year and I think it will be a tough one to topple. My favorite book of all time is OLIVIA AND JAI by Rebecca Ryman. It was her debut novel and is simply breathtaking.


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Find Camille here:    camilledimaio.com    Facebook    Twitter

How I Found My Hakuna Matata

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Going on a safari was on my mother-in-law Joyce’s bucket list, not mine. Still, we gratefully accepted the invitation to accompany her. (We’re givers, I know.)

For a year we received e-mails from Joyce admonishing us what to do to prepare for the trip to Tanzania (not the least of which was practicing taking a shower with our mouths closed). Care packages of DEET and rain ponchos arrived at our house. I stored them in a drawer and hoped I wouldn’t forget where I’d put them many months later when it came time to pack.

The safari loomed in the future for so long. Now we have been and returned. It is over in time, but not gone.

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When you don’t know what to expect in an experience, you allow room for surprises. Sure, I expected that I would enjoy seeing a place on our planet unique in its preservation of land and animals. I expected that I would ooh and aah over elephants and giraffes and lions and baboons. I did not expect, however, that the pace of our journey, slow and in the moment, would linger quite so long when I returned to “real life.” Call it the Hakuna Matata Effect; it lasts.

I’m not speaking of the red dust that still clings to my suitcase. I’m speaking of the less tangible residue, like the first Swahili words we learned as we rushed to get everyone and six suitcases into a jeep on our way to the Arusha airstrip for a propeller flight to the Serengeti. “Pole pole,” he said (poh-lay poh-lay). “Slowly, slowly.” We’ll get there. Just breathe. It takes the same amount of time to move calmly as it does to feel rushed and to rush others.

I’m speaking of the melodious sound of Swahili, embodied in this ear worm of a song taught to us by our very patient driver/guide Ellison (and which essentially translates to, “What’s up, dude? Everything’s cool; no worries in Tanzania.”):

 

I’m speaking of my continued longing for the sound of only birds and animals and wind, instead of the sounds that fill my habitat: houses striving for perfection with incessant remodels; hammers and power saws; lawnmowers and leaf blowers; fire engine sirens; airplanes droning; electronic devices buzzing and dinging.

 

 

Mostly, I’m speaking of the perspective gained by traveling outside of my culture, which all-too-quickly fades upon reentry. For a week I was not constantly connected to cable “news.” For a week I watched animals who knew nothing of North Korea or Russia or the United States, who cared nothing about SAT Prep classes or Bar Mitzvah caterers or glitchy WiFi at the office. I am not saying I wish I were Maasai, or that I would like my world to constrict to hunting and gathering. I am saying I needed the reminder that some of my concerns are cuckoo creations of my cultural bubble. They have no intrinsic universal value, and I can choose which to ascribe to, and which to let go.

I cling to the residue of Tanzania. For a week, I was with my family, away from the push/pulls that animate our lives at home. For a week we lived a starkly different pace — on the go at 6 am, eating breakfast and lunch in the quiet of the bush, in bed at dark, falling asleep to those sounds of nature. For a week our eyes set upon the unfamiliar beauty of flat-topped acacias and rocky outcroppings that shelter lion cubs. And for a week we spent 8-10 hours bumping around in a jeep looking for glimpses of animal action, and peeing outside when Ellison decided the threat of lion or leopard attack was low. Joyce said it was the trip of a lifetime, and that she will never do it again.

Me? I’m ready to plan my return.

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P.S. Bonus video: Watch an elephant multi-task, and listen to our amazed commentary. And finally, the words to “Jambo buana” song, written out for us by Ellison.

 

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Writer’s Life: Ellen Umansky

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First, some high praise garnered by Brooklyn-based author Ellen Umansky’s debut novel, The Fortunate Ones.

“The Fortunate Ones” is a subtle, emotionally layered novel about the ways art and other objects of beauty can make tangible the invisible, undocumented moments in our lives, the portion of experience that exists without an audience but must be preserved if we are to remain whole. —The New York Times Book Review 

Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first. — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Now that you have hopefully clicked the link above to buy it, I’ll reveal that Ellen and I were good buddies in our Santa Monica middle school. Our paths diverged, but not too widely, as we both attended Penn, and recently reunited for a reunion author panel called “Words with Friends.” I could not be more proud of her, more excited to read her novel, or more pleased to introduce you. Meet Ellen Umanksy:

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

My immediate response to this question is a pragmatic one: I have so much less time to work than before I had children, but I’m a better, more disciplined writer now. I’m less precious about my writing; as a parent, you can’t afford to be. You simply have to get your words down on paper and take it from there.

My mother, who passed away a year ago, was my role model in all kinds of ways, large and small. She was sick for several years, but she rarely complained. She was a cheerful and warm person, almost relentlessly so, and because of that, it was easy to overlook her persistence and resilience. She pushed through some seriously painful months — years, actually — during which she continued to work, travel, spend time with her family, her grandchildren in particular. I think of her determination all the time, and try to apply that to my own work and life.

Where do you write? What do you love about it? (or I suppose, what don’t you love…)

I write anywhere I can, but often I’m at my desk in our house in Brooklyn; that’s where I am right now. A big window to my left overlooks a parking lot, but affords a slice of trees too—a light-filled urban view. There’s something I love about working in my house alone. There’s usually so much chatter and noise, questions being asked of me—mom, where are my gym clothes? Mom, I can’t find my [insert random toy here]—but then they leave for school and it’s suddenly, blessedly quiet again. For the next five hours, the space belongs only to me. When I’m stuck in my work, I find it useful to get up and take care of a mundane, household task. I might have no idea where I’m going plot-wise in a story, but emptying a dishwasher? That I can do.

I’m also a member of the Brooklyn Writers Space, a collective workspace where I’ll often decamp in the late afternoons or if I’m working on a weekend. When my kids were young, that space was a lifesaver. I know a number of other writers who also belong, and it’s nice to run into them and chat and be reminded of that camaraderie. Writing can be such lonely business, and that fellowship, wherever you find it, is essential.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Get it down on paper. You can always revise. And revise. And revise.

Who inspires you?

So many people: My mother; a big, ever-changing mix of writers, Grace Paley, Wilkie Collins, Elena Ferrante, Jane Austen, and Lore Segal; my daughters; my husband, too. He’s a psychiatrist and a voracious reader, my secret weapon. He’s insightful about character and human relationships, doesn’t get caught up in questions of craft, and is one of the funniest people I know.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

My grandmother, who passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 101, was born in Russia before the Russian Revolution, and fled that country as a young girl in 1921, crossing into Poland illegally and waiting with her family for close to two years before they could come to America. I remember my grandmother talking about that stressful time, living in Lemburg, Poland, and how her parents would go every day to the offices of the HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was helping them with their visas and so much more. Last month, I went to a rally at the foot of Manhattan, in view of the Statue of Liberty, to protest Trump’s ban against immigrants and refugees. The rally was organized by HIAS, the same group that helped my grandmother’s family so long ago. I am both inspired and heartened by their work and appalled that we need them so badly today.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I devoured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah a few years ago, and read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun this winter. I don’t know what took me so long to turn to it. It’s a tour de force, told from different points of views during the Biafran war of independence in 1960’s Nigeria, something I knew little about. But just as compelling, it’s a story rich in character that focuses on a pair of sisters, twins, what sets them apart and what brings them together.

Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is also a favorite of mine. It opens at Harvard in the ’60’s when two men from vastly different backgrounds meet and become friends. But college is just the starting point for this sweeping, deeply emotional story that crosses decades and continents. It’s a such rich and compulsive read; I’m friends with Joanna Hershon and witnessed her writing the book and I still don’t quite understand how she did it.


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Follow Ellen on Facebook and Twitter and EllenUmansky.com


The Fortunate Ones, Synopsis:

“One very special work of art–a Chaim Soutine painting–will connect the lives and fates of two different women, generations apart, in this enthralling and transporting debut novel that moves from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.

It is 1939 in Vienna, and as the specter of war darkens Europe, Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a kindertransport, and send her to live with strangers in England.

Six years later, the war finally over, a grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. Alone in London, devastated, she cannot help but try to search out one piece of her childhood: the Chaim Soutine painting her mother had cherished.

Many years later, the painting finds its way to America. In modern-day Los Angeles, Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. Newly single and unsure of her path, she also carries a burden of guilt that cannot be displaced. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie threw a party at her father’s house with unexpected but far-reaching consequences. The Soutine painting that she loved and had provided lasting comfort to her after her own mother had died was stolen, and has never been recovered.

This painting will bring Lizzie and Rose together and ignite an unexpected friendship, eventually revealing long-held secrets that hold painful truths. Spanning decades and unfolding in crystalline, atmospheric prose, The Fortunate Ones is a haunting story of longing, devastation, and forgiveness, and a deep examination of the bonds and desires that map our private histories.”

Writer’s Life: Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff Author Photo credit Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

Pam Jenoff is the author of ten novels, her latest — THE ORPHAN’S TALE — launched last month to much acclaim. I met Pam at the Jewish Book Conference in 2015, and she impressed me as warm, intelligent, funny, and humble. She is also a Penn Law grad and mother of young children. I’m pretty sure her motto (see below) has something to do with her prolific output. I’m pleased to introduce you to Pam Jenoff:

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

I’ve had occasion lately to think a lot about the inherent tension between being a writer and being a mom. As a mother, I want to always be present in the moment. But my writer side secretly wants to sneak off and be with my characters. Essentially it is about the precious commodity of time, and I think the answer is to be wholly present for whichever aspect of life I am spending time on at that moment.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

I have written in mountaintop retreats and castles. I have also written in my doctor’s office and in my car, and can tell you whether the coffee shops within a five mile radius of my house open at 6:00 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, because I’m there with my nose pressed against the glass wanting to get inside and write. Usually my office is my favorite place because I just love to be in my daily routine, doing my thing. I also do very well writing in hotels on book tour. But you can’t be too fussy about it.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Every Damn Day. It’s all about moving the manuscript forward, even an inch at a time.

Who inspires you?

So many people! Great writers and great athletes. My kids. Right now, my mom, who has waged an epic health battle this year and is a total warrior for our family.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

My big three causes have always been hunger, homelessness and at-risk youth. Right now, I’m passionate about book fair scholarships – making sure that children who cannot afford a book at a school book fair are able to choose one, instead of watching others get a book while they do without. My kids go to a very diverse public school and I’m really focused on including students from low-income families in all aspects of school life.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I am reading constantly. There are so many good books coming out this year: thrillers from Mary Kubica and Heather Gudenkauf, historical fiction from Janet Benton and Jillian Cantor, summer novels by Jamie Brenner and Jane Green, [read her Writer’s Life interview here – LND] just to name a few!

For book tour info, and to buy this book and her others, visit www.PamJenoff.com

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“A gripping story about the power of friendship to save and redeem even in the darkest of circumstances, The Orphan’s Tale sheds light on one of the most colorful and inspiring stories of heroism in Nazi Germany. This is a book not to be missed.”

 – Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife

Wisdom from Amy Krouse Rosenthal: “Make the Most of Your Time Here”

I’m in my robe, a soft hug, as I glide downstairs in the last of the dark this morning, letting my son sleep a little too late. I’m the first one up today. I turn on the kettle, walk to the driveway for the paper. For good or ill, I am a devotee of newsprint, and I read the paper as though there will be a test.

The usual stuff. Politics. Crime. Environment. The Arts section ambushes me. A description of a Syrian war documentary.  It provides a lesson in effective storytelling: describe one tragedy and you will break more hearts than the most unfathomable, impersonal statistics: A father in a rickety boat tries to save his children from drowning, one-by-one. It’s too much. I close my eyes. I may have to go back to bed.

I turn the page and am saved. There is Amy Krouse Rosenthal. She, as you may know, wrote the now-viral Modern Love essay “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” in light of her waning days “as a person on this planet. Could the story of her life, and her death, have the answers? How can a person live such a loving, generous, gracious, wise, creative life? In a world of war and drowning children, does it make a difference?

Maybe it does. I went online to read more about her. I read that she loved creating so much, she made a short film about 17 things she created, and then invited people to meet her in a Chicago park to make a cool 18th thing together. And they came! I watched the first video, “The Beckoning of Lovely.” She brought people together to make beauty.

I read about one of her many children’s books, The OK Book, that celebrates being OK at things. Watch the trailer, or Buy it here.

But still, in a world that hold so much sorrow, does making all that beauty make a difference? This isn’t a new question. There has always been the duality, tragedy and beauty. Maybe the question is what do you choose to focus on? Amy has said, “Whatever you decide to look for you will find.” So you may as well look for the good. Beckon the lovely.

Love your children for who they are in all of their “ok-ness.” Love yourself for who you are in the same way. How can this make the world better? In this TEDx talk, Amy advises,”Ask not what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go to it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” So, no, I will not solve the Syrian war crisis today, but nor will I retreat to bed. If we try to find what makes us come alive, and go to it, we might add a little more peace to our world. And that will be a good day.

AmyKrouseRosenthal

(Image from the homepage at http://www.WhoisAmy.com)

 

 

Meet the Author: Christina Baker Kline

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There are people who, having reached a sweet spot of success, pull up the ladder behind them, cutting off those who wish to follow. Then there are people who arrive at that pinnacle and do everything they can to reach out and help pull up the next person. Author Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at No. 1, is decidedly the latter. My personal testimony: When I was seeking blurbs for my novel, I looked at my own bookshelf for possible kindred spirits whom I might ask (and it’s a big ask — “please read my whole book and publicly praise it?”). My eyes alighted on my copy of Orphan Train, and I took the chance of contacting Ms. Baker Kline. To my astonishment and delight, this busy author, mother, sister, daughter, wife had the kindness to reply that she would try to make time to read it. And then she blew my mind and DID! My gratitude is boundless.

Christina Baker Kline has given us a beautiful new novel, A PIECE OF THE WORLD, inspired by Christina Olson, the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s best-known painting. I am thrilled that she was willing to share her thoughts about writing and give us a glimpse into her personal writing world. Meet Christina:

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

My mother and father were free-range parents before free-range parenting was a thing (so many years before it was a thing that it was actually another thing, hippie parenting). They were not worriers, to put it mildly. When I visited them for the first time with my own five-month-old son who’d never eaten solid food, I came downstairs one morning to find my father feeding him bacon and eggs. Though I panicked a little in that moment, mostly I took to heart their laissez-faire attitude, and I’m glad I did. My now almost-adult sons (21, 20 and 17) are pretty self-reliant and self-motivated.

My father was a historian and my mother a feminist activist and they both wrote books. They got on with their own work without apology. I think that’s the most important thing I learned from them: that it’s good for kids to have parents who are passionate about their work. The older they got, the more passionate they became about the things that truly interested them. I’ve found the same is true for me.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

When my kids were little I hired babysitters and went to coffee shops. I found the ambient noise helpful; it tamped down my inner critic. I still go to coffee shops sometimes, but I’ve learned over the years not to make strict rules for myself about where and when I write. I write in dentist offices, on subways, in libraries and lecture halls. When I’m immersed in a novel, I can write almost anywhere.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

James Carville’s legendary directive for the Clinton campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid.” My motto would be a variation on that: “It’s the writing, stupid.” Research and pre-writing and thinking about character are all important parts of the process, but eventually you have to grit your teeth, put pen to paper (literally, in my case; I write longhand), and WRITE. Another motto I love: “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.” I used to attribute that to the writer Honor Moore, but I ran into her at a party and she told me she’d never said it. So I’ll claim it.

Who inspires you?

Fierce and gutsy females who’ve been in this business for a long time and still get up every day and write: women like Toni Morrison and Hilma Wolitzer and Alix Kates Shulman and Louise DeSalvo. I want to be like them when I grow up.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

When I wrote my novel Orphan Train I learned quite a bit about the foster care system in the U.S. Roots & Wings is a New Jersey nonprofit that provides young adults who age out of the foster care system with safe housing, educational support, counseling, and life skills. They are doing incredible work, and I’m proud to serve on their advisory board.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I just read Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and it blew me away. It’s wide-ranging, fierce, and deep. The language sings; the magical-realist railroad is a spectacular fiction.  I’m going to re-read it to try to understand how he pulled it off.


Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Orphan Train (2013) spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of this novel for young readers, Orphan Train Girl, will be published in May.

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Praise for A PIECE OF THE WORLD:

“A Piece of the World is a graceful, moving and powerful demonstration of what can happen when a fearless literary imagination combines with an inexhaustible curiosity about the past and the human heart: a feat of time travel, a bravura improvisation on the theme of art history, a wonderful story that seems to have been waiting, all this time, for Christina Baker Kline to come along and tell it.” —Michael Chabon, author of Moonglow

“The inscrutable figure in the foreground of Wyeth’s Christina’s World is our American Mona Lisa, and Christina Baker Kline has pulled back the veil to imagine her rich story. Tender, tragic, A Piece of the World is a fascinating exploration of the life lived inside that house at the top of the hill.” —Lily King, author of Euphoria

“With A Piece of the World, Baker Kline gives us a brilliantly imagined fictional memoir of the woman in the famed Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, so detailed, moving, and utterly transportive that I’ll never be able to look at the painting again without thinking of this book and the characters who populate its pages.” —Erik Larson, author of Dead Wake