It is okay in the quiet of the morning to shrink our worldly concerns to the size of a belly scratch.
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.
A pregnant lady in a bikini stands at the shoreline, her gorgeous tanned belly stretched to capacity, a leash looped around her wrist. The muscled dog at her feet holds himself back, ready to spring toward the waves rolling in and away. She casts her eyes down at the phone held in both hands, its spell cast over her.
I say aloud, to no one but myself, or maybe the pelicans skimming the surface of the water, How sad.
But as soon I say that, I think about what my kids would think of the lady at the beach with her dog and her phone. Not sad at all. Not even a drop of sadness, Mom! Just the way it is.
Last night, thirsty, I pressed a glass against a plastic lever on my refrigerator. Electricity and metal pipes that run under asphalt and concrete filled it with cold water. I did not go to a stream, bend down, cup my hands. On another plane, an ancestor said, how sad.
I have had the unplugged beach, and its restorative power. I want my children to know what it feels like to sit at the shore alone with their thoughts, to get lost in their heads, to share their thoughts only with themselves or the ocean or the birds, not the connected metallic world contained in their hands.
But who am I to judge, a hypocrite who dictates these words into my phone as I sit on the beach watching her, watching the dog, thinking about how I’m going to type it up later and press publish.
She told me that the sea otter who followed her was her dead daughter.
We sat across from each other at a square wood dining table with our half-eaten meals between us, ice melting in sturdy glasses, efficient neighborhood waitress pausing to refill then leave us alone. We kept eating, pressing our forks into salads, or grain bowls, or omelets — that particular I do not remember. What I remember is her matter-of-fact-ness and her certainty. I filled in the vision she painted – the otter swimming behind her canoe, watching her, keeping pace — with details from my own memories of a different watery place decades before — the slant of sun powering through thick bayou treetops, bouncing off the water and turning it green. A boat and oars. Rippling water. Moving through shade and light.
I remember thinking as I listened to her – this mom, this survivor – why not? who am I to be certain of a world where that cannot be true? There are mysteries, after all — Maybe God, and maybe Not. I was no fundamentalist, either way. I accompanied her to consider the possibility, to Maybe.
Seven years later, having come close to more deaths and companioned more grief, I circle back to that conversation, to the vivid image of the otter swimming behind her mother, not so close as to touch her, but close enough to be seen and known. I circle back to that restaurant, to the mother describing the moment, and to then-me who received her memory. And I change what I knew and understood to be true: of course that was her daughter, gliding through water dark with life, bracing and cool.
Einstein said, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” but it takes me a while to catch on. An orange butterfly followed me for a mile before I recognized her and gasped hello.
Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us: a novel, 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 more of her writing on Medium.
Last year, we held a placeholder Thanksgiving, an empty day where there should have been a crowd, a marker to keep the tradition going.
It worked. Thanksgiving is on.
My parents traditionally have hosted our extended family on Thanksgiving. (And by “my parents” I mean: my mother invites, counts heads, arranges flowers, rents tables and chairs, sets out nuts and cheese and crackers, and used to cook the turkey and stuffing, now outsourced to our friend Chef Ike; and my dad warmly toasts her efforts.)
Suffice to say my mom still does a lot. In fact, she would be forgiven if in recent years she has been silently tiring of it (to be clear, total supposition on my part), perhaps counting down to a handoff of the responsibility. But for 2021 she is recharged, revving and raring to go, thrilled to have it back. It is a parallel energy to a certain high schooler I know who looked forward to returning to school after having been locked with his parents for more than a year. Things we grow tired of and take for granted, we appreciate anew.
Full disclosure: I am pretty sure my Dad is less revved about having a crowd of people inside their house, even his favorite people. But he is going along for the ride.
Thank you, Mom, for making it happen. Thank you, Dad, for allowing it to happen, despite the fact that there is more than 0% risk (I see you). Thank you vaccines for making gathering again possible. Thank you grandparents and great-grandparents for setting the example of prioritizing family. Thank you parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, spouses, children for following them. Thank you rituals. Thank you fall, and cloudy skies. Thank you red leaves, wherever you may be.
Maybe it is too soon to be grateful. Thanksgiving is four weeks — a lifetime — away. We know life takes turns we do not want or expect. But can it ever be “too soon to be grateful?” Impossible. What we can be grateful for is what we have now — the idea of the gathering to come, the sweet anticipation, the energy it swirls in us, all of which is present this very moment.
Last year’s piece, “A Placeholder Thanksgiving. Keep it Warm.”
The memories come all at once, out of order.
Cousin Ken sitting in the middle of my folks’ living room, strumming folks songs on his guitar, offering Puff the Magic Dragon for then-pre-schooler Rebecca…and Kum-bala-laika for his mom Leona and my Grandma Lilli, calling them back to their father singing with his mandolin, bringing them to tears.
Every year, Greg showing up early so as not to miss any of the Dallas game. (Good luck today, by the way.) A football game on the front yard, where everyone but my dad got older, my sister and cousins and me replaced by our children.
If I strain, I can even remember when our grandmother still brought a “second” turkey to accommodate the growing family gathering, before we needed to fix a plate for her and bring it to where she sat. Before my mom eventually decided to leave all the cooking to Chef Ike — but Barbara kept bringing her apple cranberry fruit crumble thing, my favorite.
This year I’m making Barbara’s apple cranberry thing, which turns out to be very easy and will always be my favorite, though it may not taste the same since it won’t be scooped from the same ceramic baking dish.
This year we are apart. Hold the day, keep it warm, and we’ll be together again next year.
“That virtue we appreciate is as much ours as another’s. We see so much only as we possess.”
These words attributed to Henry David Thoreau came to my e-mail inbox this morning from inspiringquotes.com (let us appreciate the irony of technology delivering Walden‘s champion), with an added interpretation: “It makes sense that what we value in others would already be present in us, be it kindness or courage. Thoreau reminds us that we are our own role models: In surrounding ourselves with people we admire, we realize the kind of people we are.”
This sent my mind to a moment from this weekend’s visit with my son in college. It is fair to say we spent the majority of our waking hours watching football. On Saturday, he brought us — grandma, younger brother, and me — to a place he and his friends like to hang out to watch away games. He made sure we got there early so there would be enough room for everyone. He wanted to be sure that all who arrived would be comfortable and happy.
Which is why when that drunk guy sat down on a bench behind me, his eyes focused on our group, it unnerved him. I didn’t notice the guy, not until he tried to join our conversation with rolling sentences about Prefontaine and the Santa Monica Pier. I am used to coddling oddballs, so I tried to be friendly and dismissive at the same time — that balance of “I do not want to agitate you by ignoring you, but you are not part of this.” My balance was off — too friendly.
The guy stood up and walked two paces closer to us. I did not see him approaching, but my son did. He saw the slurring, wobbling man reach his arm toward his mom and set his hand on my shoulder. And, shazam, he was on his feet, body forward, voice warning: Hey, don’t touch my mom! It was the moment I saw my child transform from bear cub to bear, roaring “intruder beware.” His every nerve ending told him to be my protector. (I maintained that I could have flicked the guy over with my pinky.) I had never seen him confront anyone like that. Ever. He said later that he never had.
Thank goodness he was behind the table.
The next day, one of his friends who had been sitting with us texted my kiddo to say he had not known he could respect him more than he already did, but seeing him defend his family won his even higher admiration. He said he hoped he would do the same in that situation.
What a good friend. Who goes out of their way to praise their buddy’s actions after the fact? How many of us have friends who write to tell us they think we rock? How often do we do that for a friend? To his friend, I offer Thoreau: “That virtue we appreciate is as much ours as another’s. We see so much only as we possess.” You would do the same.
It gives me joy to see the kind of friendships my son has cultivated. Like a lot of us, my son suffered his share of jerks in middle and high school. As painful as that can be in the moment, we learn from those experiences what we are willing to accept and what we are not, what caliber of friends we deserve. What I know to be true is that his friend’s generous text reveals the kind of friendship my son offers back, an open-hearted kindness with the confidence to tell another, you are awesome.
As Thoreau would have us do: May we seek out people with virtues we aspire to have. May we surround ourselves with people we admire, and move away from those we do not. May we be our own role models.
At the end of this post, I am going to ask you a favor. But first, let me set the stage.
The family room was a mess. The dogs had tracked dirt and dead grass from the backyard across the floor and sofas. The “crap counter” was living up to its beloved nickname — filled with mail, homework, textbooks, odds and ends, and our pandemic-purchased air fryer that fit nowhere else in the kitchen. My younger son sat at the table doing homework. I was distracted, looking for a broom, when he looked up and surprised me by talking about lunchtime at high school.
“We stand in a circle,” he said. “And sometimes someone will come late and they’ll be standing behind someone, outside of the circle. And I’ll notice, and say ‘Guys, open up, make the circle bigger, let her in.'”
Well. Need I say that this single moment is better and more important than any grade or achievement? I was proud of him both for noticing, and for acting. How many times have I not noticed someone’s exclusion, or noticed but stayed quiet?
It recalled for me a speech by Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, eight or nine years ago. I sat with my family listening to his homily. Behind Father Greg sat some of his “homies” — former gang members who joined Homeboy Industries to return to society, employment and moral support. “We draw our family circles too small,” Father Boyle said, quoting Mother Teresa. “Imagine a circle of compassion where no one is outside the circle.” Could that have been the seed planted for my son’s expansive thinking?
We live in small circles. Family, friends, colleagues. The global pandemic (incredible how those words roll off the tongue and keyboard so fluidly now) shrank our circles to the size of our rooms and homes. School was a computer screen. Now he has expanded back to school, its lunch area still riddled with boundaries.
Imagine drawing the circle so big that no one is standing outside it. What would that even look like? How can we start in our own ways?
I am drawing my own circle wider in a small way by expanding who can access my posts. Though I have loyal followers here (some more than others — Hi Mom! Hi Joyce!), other spaces offer a potential to reach many more.
So starting today, I am posting on Medium.com, which brings me to the favor: Please read my post on Medium (“How to Write a Memoir”) and “follow” me there.
(Medium lets everyone read a few articles for free each month. Or, you can become a member for $5 per month and gain unlimited access to all of Medium’s content.)
You have loyally read my words in this space and I am so appreciative of your feedback and this relationship with you. I hope you get something from it, too. Let’s keep it going.
Please enjoy this 3-minute read about how I came to be writing a memoir.
P.S. Bonus content: Writing a memoir requires revealing the good, bad and ugly. With that in mind, here’s what I look like when I wrote this.
I had a WhatsApp message yesterday from a man whose deportation I failed to stop, to my shame. I had not heard from him in a year, since he wished me Happy Thanksgiving from hiding. He said he had some promising news and wanted my advice.
Backing up. He had come to the U.S. on a student visa, graduated from a prestigious California university, and gotten a good job in tech. But he feared that if he returned home he would be killed because he was gay, so he overstayed his visa. He worked and made friends. He bought nice things and paid taxes (I mention these because “contribute to the economy” is how our policymakers tend to measure worth). A fender bender put him in the police gaze, and that was that. They transferred him to ICE and locked him up indefinitely. Without a lawyer, he sought asylum, claiming fear of being tortured in his home country. It was denied. So were his appeals.
When I met him as part of a “chaplaincy” visit, he had been locked up for three years. I knew nothing about immigration law, but he asked me to help. I could do little but be a friend. Inside a locked room, we spent hours discussing books, our childhoods, our shared views of God despite our different religions. I was watching my son play in a basketball tournament when he called me, terrified, because they were deporting him that night. I did not know what to do. And then he was gone. Once he was back in his home country, he sent me a photo over WhatsApp of his bloodied face after a beating the local police had inflicted.
Since then I began to learn asylum law. I still do not know how I could have stopped his deportation.
This weekend I watched “The Infiltrators” (trailer), a true story by this MacArthur Genius winning couple, in which young “Dreamers” in Broward County, Florida turn themselves in to ICE so they can be detained, in order to help get others released. They use public outcry and political pressure to win release for several “low-priority” immigrants. Their bravery, tenacity, and creativity is breathtaking.
When I got that call that my friend was being deported and was on his way to the airport, I did not think to tell him (as the young activists in Florida did with success) refuse to get on the plane. Tell the pilot you refuse. Nearly three years have passed since then. I hope I have acquired some wisdom and experience that can help him restart his life. We made a plan to speak when he can find good WiFi.
Later, I read Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, and messages from the universe aligned as they sometimes do. In her opening essay, she wrote about how the discourse in our country has become so violent, ugly, and cruel.
“We who believe in dignity, decency, kindness, equality, and love have to get louder, braver, and bolder. We have got to come out of the shadows and start using our voices in every forum possible to highlight the need for those values in our public arena. The bottom line is that we would never accept in our homes what we currently accept in our social media feeds or public forums or from certain public officials. We can do better. We must do better. We can’t step back and simply allow those who are raging, screaming, lying, and undermining to own the main stage.”
We do not have to agree on everything, but we must not lose sight of each other’s human dignity in the process of disagreeing.
She concludes: “Each of us is a light. Each of us has tremendous power to highlight the good and to be an example of the good. Each of us can talk openly about the values we uphold and be examples of how to model successful conflict resolution.” Her prayer for the week echoes this: “Dear God, Please help me be an agent of change. Please help me be a light of love. Whenever I’m tempted to be frustrated by the other, remind me that love—not shame—is the key to bringing us closer. Amen.”
Reading her prayer, some Indigo Girls lyrics that always lift my heart and strengthen my spine came to my lips: “If the world is night, shine my life like a light.” They call me back to the basic truth of what we are here to do: try to shine some light. If only I can figure out how to do it as bright as these times call for.
“Let it Be Me,” by The Indigo Girls
Sticks and stones
A single light bulb
On a single thread for the black
Begins to age and crack
While the politicians shadowbox
The power ring
In an endless split decision
Never solve anything
From a neighbor’s distant land
I heard the strain of the common man
Let it be me
(this is not a fighting song)
Let it be me
(not a wrong for a wrong)
Let it be me
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light
Well the world seems spent
And the president
Has no good idea
Of who the masses are
Well I’m one of them
And I’m among friends
We’re trying to see beyond
The fences in our own backyards
I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
But the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet
Let it be me
(this is not a fighting song)
Let it be me
(not a wrong for a wrong)
Let it be me
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light
In the kind word you speak
In the turn of the cheek
When your vision stays clear
In the face of your fear
Then you see turning out a light switch
Is their only power
When we stand like spotlights
In a mighty tower
All for one and one for all
Then we sing the common call
Let it be me
(this is not a fighting song)
Let it be me
(not a wrong for a wrong)
Let it be me
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light.
Songwriter: Emily Ann Saliers
Let It Be Me lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
“I feel most alive when I’m doing something dangerous.” Powerful words, if somewhat concerning when spoken by your then-10-year-old. His middle name is Sage for a reason — no less than Eleanor Roosevelt counseled, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face….You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I am re-reading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s memoir, Hope Will Find You, a decade after first reading it. In her quest “to learn how to live with less fear,” she attends a Buddhist meditation class, in which the leader drops this doozy: “‘Today we’re going to learn the death meditation.’ [I]t was important to see that we could die at any moment.” The teacher proceeds to list many ways they might die that very day — aneurism, car crash, choking on their post-meditation lunch.
This caused her initial panic, but then Rabbi Levy writes, “Embracing a death sentence was extraordinarily liberating. Small-level fears were beginning to seem inconsequential and irrelevant. I felt free to take risks and to speak my mind. I was more open to change and to trying new things.” Just like my son had known.
“I am not afraid” — words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, Adonai Li — lodged in my head this week. I found myself reverting to an old way to process feelings: I wrote a poem. I am no poet (just ask my cringe-y teenage journal). And I had no intention of sharing it with anyone, let alone everyone. But as Rabbi Levy spoke to me from pages written years ago: Liberate yourself. Take risks. Try new things. A poem may not be the kind of danger my son had in mind those years ago, but going beyond one’s comfort zone can take many shapes. This week, maybe find a way to exceed one of yours?
I am not afraid of death I know people who live there To be clear (Whomever may be listening) I am in no rush Whenever I get there (early or late) The party is in full swing The sounds of a shindig Favorite songs and longed-for voices Laughing! The unmistakable hush as the guests pause to look who is arriving The rush to embrace The loving reunion.
Monday morning. Here we go! Clean slate! Another week, another chance to start strong! Exercise! Writing! I will make meaningful strides in the revisions! I will get this book done!
Good intentions are slippery suckers; I know/fear that how this morning goes will set the tone for the rest of the week. So I pick a podcast to listen to as I sit on my yoga mat – multitasking, baby! — something to motivate me, light a fire.
I need inspiration. I have been castigating myself for how long I am taking to revise my work in progress. Draft 6 already, with more drafts needed. I suffer from a case of the “shoulds” – I should be done with it already. My comparing brain lights upon every author who writes faster. I have begun to say aloud that maybe it will never see the light of day. I wonder if I should prepare my heart for an “ambiguous loss,” like this author whose novel has not been bought and is wondering if it is over.
Is ever the right time to call “time of death” on an unrealized dream? Or do some dreams need to sit dormant, put away for safekeeping, until your unconscious directs you to open them again?
“We live in an era of instant gratification, a culture that prizes efficiency over patience, but some things, to reach their full potential, they simply cannot be rushed.”
Okaaaay. Go on…
“Optimizing or speeding them up is impossible….A more deliberate pace can be productive, if we revel in it.”
We hear from a zoologist who is over the moon about the evolutionary brilliance of the sloth, the only animal that “comes with a built-in philosophy.” We hear from a sleep scientist that we cannot rush sleep; Mother Nature has evolved our bodies to need what it needs. We hear from an architect investigating ancient, indigenous technologies, like rain forest “bridges” made from trees that were planted fifty years earlier for that eventual purpose.
I sooo want to cross the finish line with this book. I feel antsy, judgmental of my progress, and ready for a sense of completion.
But as much as I want to complete it, I want it to become what it is supposed to be. I may not even know yet what that is. So I am listening to it. I am showing up and straining to hear. I am giving it the time it takes. I will try like hell to revel in its deliberate pace.
I come back to the Mary Oliver poem that always helps me slow my breath, “Don’t Worry.”
Things take the time they take. Don’tFelicity
How many roads did Saint Augustine follow
before he became Saint Augustine?
We sat around our dining room table in mid-August. Summer was ending. Our younger son would start 11th grade in a day or two, his first time back in a classroom since the early spring of 9th grade. A few days later his brother would head back to college for his junior year in person.
Before we eat, I said, I want to do something. Four half-melted candles, a hodge-podge of what I could find in the kitchen drawer, stood up in the center of the table, anchored to the bottom of a glass jar by their own melted wax. Next to that, the last four matches of a box. I thought that each of us could light a candle and say something, whatever you want, maybe a wish or hope for the new year. Anything.
I needed this. I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary these past 17 or so months. I needed to mark the end of one phase before we rushed headlong into the next without a breath. I needed to call it out for what it was – an aberration, a valley, a trial – in order to face and welcome the “new normal” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.
I expected eye rolls, but they did not come.
So I lit my candle and told my boys I was proud of how they had weathered this strange and unprecedented challenge, isolated from friends and the rituals of high school and college life, and that they had shown remarkable resilience and good humor, as well as grief and mourning. We went around the table and each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. It do not know that it changed anything measureable, but it did give us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.
The instinct to mark time is a hallmark of being human. “One of the most important features of rituals is that they do not only mark time; they create time. By defining beginnings and ends to developmental or social phases, rituals structure our social worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change.” – Rebecca J. Lester, Ph.D
As Jews, every Friday evening we are invited (I guess “commanded” would be a more traditional way to go) to light Shabbat candles to separate the work and school week from a time to renew, rest, and recharge. (Unexpected bonus: during the pandemic, having such rituals helped keep track of what day of the week it was.)
Tonight we mark the beginning of a new Jewish year. Some of our “normal” rituals – gathering together, getting dressed up (i.e. out of sweatpants), driving to our synagogue or the larger hall rented to accommodate the large crowds who show up this time a year — are still not back. Instead we will meet our synagogue community outside in a park. (Still better than last year, when the park was shut down and empty of the sounds that animate it, the human energies filling and colliding, reducing it to a plot of sand, grass, metal, bricks. It is the people who make it a park.)
Apart from the novel location, the practicing of other rituals will ground us — the prayers themselves and the fact that we know to gather at all. Rituals are meant to be done in community. “Rituals anchor community in the body. We physically feel the community.” – Byung-Chul Han.
One ritual of the Jewish High holidays that I love because it involves being in nature and letting go of regrets is Tashlikh. We will gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, to symbolically cast our “sins” into the ocean. I will cast away my sky-high fear. I will cast away washing my groceries when I come home from the market. I will cast away telling my teenager and 20-year-old to wash their hands every time they come home. I will cast away the grief of seeing caution tape on the monkey bars. I will cast away the anguish for all that was missed or lost in the past year and a half. Harder, though just as necessary, I will cast away the silver lining of having my kids home, the false-comfort of thinking I can protect them, and try to adjust to their being out in the world where they belong. I will cast away the clenching and shrinking we needed to practice, and try to open to what will be born in the year to come.