More Lessons from Lilli Diamond: good for what ails you.

I hear my grandmother’s voice almost daily. And some days multiple times.

This day I am standing at the kitchen counter on a winter Sunday, just past noon. She is not yet two months gone.

I’m in my bathrobe, showered, after my ritual Sunday cardio-funk dance class. Dance class is usually good medicine. I usually feel happy with the first bar of music blasting from the speakers, the first stretch, the beginning of movement, and downright exultant by the last breathless bow. But not today. Today it didn’t work. I am a little depressed.

I am at the kitchen counter, and I have just sliced a mango into a white bowl with a tiny chip at its rim. When did I get these? Post-engagement, pre-marriage? Twenty-plus years? I used to remember details like these. I have cut open a pomegranate and sprinkled pomegranate seeds onto the mango. It is beautiful, orange and red. I pierce the fruit with a silver-plated fork embossed with an elaborate script H. H for Heisen, for Selma & Aaron, my husband’s grandparents. I rescued them from a hidden box of silver last week, rather than let them continue to sit, tarnished and untouched.

I take a bite of my fruit, and it is a sweetness like no sugar, no cookie, no cake any human could make. A ripe mango is proof of divinity, if nothing else. The pomegranate seeds burst with juice, and yet more sweetness. I give gratitude for this deliciousness. I congratulate myself for buying them, for not forgetting about them until they are brown, for not being too lazy this time to cut into the pomegranate and confront its greedy, intricate design, trying to keep its seeds prisoner.

And I think, how can anyone be depressed eating mango and pomegranate, on a sunny winter afternoon, while wearing a bathrobe? It can’t be sustained.

And then, like a reward, I hear my grandmother’s voice. As I slip my fork again and again into the chipped white bowl, putting bite after bite of sweetness into my mouth, my redheaded guardian extols the health benefits of my snack in her distinctive style: “Pomegranates have lots of antioxidants, they are SO GOOD FOR YOU!” It’s a voice that could be saying, “You just won tickets to Disneyland!” This is a celebration.

I exhale, and try to release the dregs of whatever has its teeth in me. It’s always the little things that bring me back. I wrap my soft robe tightly around me. I appreciate the counters I’ve decluttered and wiped clean, my transparent effort to bring similar order to my mind and soul, and I nod to myself, thinking, “Grandma, you are so right.”

 

Lessons from my Grandmother: You Have to Breathe

I walk through the neighborhood in what for me is an uncommon pose – earbuds in, sunglasses on, shunning the world. I’m listening to a meditation app I purchased months ago. I programmed it to remind me every morning to meditate, and I ignore it every day. I decide to try it again. I choose from its menu: Stress-reduction, Sleep, Gratitude, Happiness. I pick the last. Everyone can use some more happiness.

It’s sort of cheating to walk while meditating, I think, as the lady’s calm voice tells me to sit straight and close my eyes, but it’s what I’ve decided to do. The meditation lady can’t judge me; today’s 12 minutes of happiness are about self-love, and learning to stop self-criticizing and comparing. So there will be no judgment of my walking-while-meditating. Besides, I once heard that “walking meditation” is a thing, so I have cover.

It’s also likely cheating that I’m carrying letters to the mailbox, but multi-tasking makes me happier, so good for me. Still, my fingers can’t release and relax entirely until I drop those off. Once I release them, I concentrate more on my breath, and not getting hit by a car when I cross the street.

“Feel any physical discomforts in your body. And rather than wish them away, acknowledge them, be aware of them, send kindness to them. Breathe into them.”

I forget to breathe and instead consider that I’m generally happy enough, so maybe this meditation on “happiness” might be wasted. Maybe I should have picked a different category. Patience. Forgiveness.

But as I turn the corner past a gorgeous house, bigger and newer and for sure cleaner than mine, I realize that I have been judging myself, thus decreasing my happiness. I’ve been judging my frustration over my writing not flowing lately. The app lady isn’t saying “don’t feel frustrated,” I think she’s telling me not to judge myself for being frustrated, not to judge my writing being stuck. Embrace or accept the frustration. Let it be.

Hmm, I think I feel happier?

My grandmother had radiation treatments for a tumor in her jaw earlier this year. They were not easy, but the tumor was painful and keeping her from eating, so the treatment was necessary for her comfort. The treatments were twice a day.

Just getting out of her building, into and out of a car, and back again, twice in one day was a herculean task. Her attitude could have been, “Forget it, I surrender.” But instead she chose to face it: “If that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do.” I accompanied her a few times.

The waiting room of a radiation treatment clinic can remind you of what you have to be grateful for. As I sat waiting for my grandmother to be called, a 17-year-old boy in Nikes and a forty-something man in a black suit and kipah asked each other how radiation was going for each of them – it was the exhaustion they agreed was most difficult.

For Lilli, the most difficult part might have been going from seated in her wheelchair to lying on the metal platform. At home, she was often scared just to go from her wheelchair to the couch. Courage. Here, she  had to lie down on the cold, hard metal, no cushion, no pillow – no guardrails. They placed a hard plastic mask shaped to her face over her, and she had to stay motionless while the platform ascended closer, closer to the source of the radiation that would hopefully give her more time, with less pain. She was allowed to drape over her a small, soft, blanket knitted by Marni.

I had more than once been in dark movie theaters with Lilli, when she was the only person in the audience to scream out in fear when a slightly startling event took place. Stillness, quietness, in the face of fear was not her natural state.

The two radiation technicians treated her respectfully and tenderly. She was no doubt afraid. Of falling off. Of being zapped with radiation. Of cancer. Of dying. But she did not complain or cry. She did not ask “why me.” She did what had to be done.

They called me back in when the treatment ended.  The two technicians were helping her into the wheelchair.

“The key is meditating,” she said to all of us. “You have to breathe.”

She would be back later that day. The tumor would shrink enough to give her more comfort, more time. To give us all more time. And maybe a few more lessons in happiness.

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Ballroom Dancing circa 2002

Greatgrandchildren

Laughing with all 7 great-grandchildren, Oct 2015.

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We Always Root for Overtime

The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying. … Continue reading

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.


FortunateOnes lc cover

 

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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.”