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 want to know if he’s okay,” she says, heartbroken.
I think, but do not say, but he is in the ground. A part of me understands. She’s his mom. She needs to know.
She calls a man and says her name. The medium asks her nothing. He describes what he is sensing and seeing and hearing. He describes her son. He describes that behind him are a man and woman, her parents. They welcomed him, he tells her. He says, “I love you, Mom.” He is whole again. And he is with her all the time.
Saturday I walked with my friend along the beach, catching up and comparing notes as we have done since our sons were babies. There are novel challenges, mothering young men emerging into adulthood. There are challenges of restarting careers we left for a decade (or two), ready now to stretch in that direction, going back at lower pay and less experience than we would have had if we had stayed in them all along, but not regretting the departure.
Our skin moves against the sand, our feet and calves and quads propelling us across it. We do not believe this is temporary, I say, trying hard to feel the urgency of being in the moment. We keep thinking it is endless. What are the magic words I can utter to wring the energy out of every hug, every song, every cup of coffee? “This too shall pass.” “I love you.” “I am here,” like Moses and God looking for each other. Hineni.
We say goodbye. She is off to pick up her son from the SATs, but I have more time to myself. I am not ready to go yet.
I ride my bike to another spot on the beach. I follow my instinct to a place I’ve never stopped, buy a coffee and a snack and sit in one of the orange sling-back chairs. My grandmother sits next to me. She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes, reveling in the air on her face, the sound of a casual family volleyball game ahead of us. Clouds keep the heat of the sun at bay. In her later days, it would have been impossible for her to be here physically, to step over the sand and sink into a low chair. But now she gets here just fine, like Samantha or Endira in “Bewitched,” appearing when beckoned or on her own whim. My quiet companion. I savor this moment. I wonder who met her when she passed over. Maybe my grandfather, handsome and young and knowing. Whole again.
I sit here for a while, sinking into the peace of having nowhere else I need to be, waiting for some inner cue to tell me it is time to go home.
Summer is over, if you did not know. One sure sign: our son left today. He is somewhere on I-5, threading through the northern towns of California, past large suburban sprawls and endless agricultural valleys, toward his for-now college home in Oregon. A call last night from his roommate informed him of bad news: a friend’s fresh Covid diagnosis, and the roommates’ possible exposure.
He informed me of this news with admirable poise and equanimity. I would have thrown a full-blown woe-is-me tantrum. Maybe as the mom, such news brings back all the stress of trying to protect my family — the wiping-down, the curling in, the lifting up of the drawbridges. I dread these rituals as much as I don’t want anyone to be sick. Or maybe it is that 18 months of online college has taught him how to deal with setbacks.
He was disappointed, sure, but he swung with the news. Found a place to stay for a couple nights until they know for sure his house is clean.
— But what if they’re positive, kiddo? I guess we can find a motel, or Airbnb, or…
— Mom, stop.
Right. One day at a time, and all that jazz.
Living in this startling age of a global pandemic, its losses and its victories, the up of getting vaccinated, the down of too few people taking it to shut the virus down, and the still dawning discovery that things are going to be different for a while, has gifted him the elusive superpower of adaptability. I am learning it along with him, once again his student.
I stood at the foot of my bed folding laundry, listening to a podcast to take my mind somewhere else, past clean t-shirts and shorts and the search for matching socks, away from the images in my head of yesterday’s funeral for an old friend.
“Everyone has a vocation,” the podcast voice said. “I mean, the most fundamental vocation is to become the person whom God created. And it’s both the person you already are and the person that God calls you to be. And I think we find that out through our desires. What moves us? What touches us? What are we drawn to? Part of that’s career. But only part of it. I mean, it’s really who you are called to be.”
To be in touch with our desires is harder for some of us than others. Sometimes it is hard to hear the call, but other times we make it hard — we know our desires but resist.
Adam Sadowsky, whose life we celebrated yesterday, followed what moved him to create a unique and brilliant life, his journey modeled on no one but himself, his own curiosity, talents, and love. He loved people and ideas and creating. He loved connection and family. He loved love.
May his memory be a blessing, and a reminder to follow our own compass. To take time out to get quiet and listen for it, if need be. Here is a glimpse of his beautiful life, well lived, in a Ted Talk he created about engineering a viral music video for OK Go. The song, aptly titled, This Too Shall Pass.
My sister says she does not think her kids should have children. We are sitting at the beach under an umbrella, our feet in the sand, the small but persistent waves blocking out the sound of cars on the highway behind us so completely that I forget the road is there. I can tell by her tone she is serious; it is not hyperbole. “Don’t say that,” I say, but my silent thought is, “she is not wrong.”
Her statement is the opposite of her biological urge. And it is perhaps the most generous position a baby-loving person could have when faced with the evidence.
The scientists are telling us that by 2040 it will be too late if we do not act with drastic urgency. But they have been telling us, and telling us, and the collective we have not yet heeded them. The drought, floods, tornadoes, heat, and fires have gotten worse, gathering strength like a snowball becomes an avalanche, so what hope is there that we will act now?
I hate when my sister is right about bad things. I push back against her statement, try to convince myself that she is overreacting, as opposed to being the one of us willing to say the awful truth. My way is to try to convince myself that something not-great is actually fine. This can be a helpful, adaptive quality: Plan goes sideways? Oh, now it is a new plan! A better plan! But it is a fine line between making peace with what is or cultivating a positive attitude, and denying reality and suppressing emotions.
It feels easier to look away from the data, to numb ourselves with busy-ness and good TV and what’s for dinner and making vacation plans. And yes, these are pleasures that still exist and we must delight in them.
But to deny reality and suppress emotions is not sustainable — not for our earth or our bodies.
I would like my children to experience the human miracle of raising children if they want to. Selfishly, I want to hold those babies. And, pollyanna wishing, maybe those babies will become people who help fix things.
Maybe this is what life has always been, knowing that living is hard and carrying on with it anyway, trying to make it better. Maybe this time there are glimmers of, “oh shit, this thing IS real” that will spur a collective effort. (And smart VOTING.) Maybe that collective effort will bring about other unforeseeable benefits (less war?), seeing that we do not have a choice but to save the world and that it takes all oars rowing together.
We get up and walk toward the shoreline, stand on the cooler darkened wet sand and wait for the first rush against our feet and ankles. It is icy and elicits a shriek, a shudder, a resistance. “Stay there,” I say. “It gets better.” The wave recedes and returns, again and again, until it feels like we are a part of the ocean, that we are meant to be standing here, like the seaweed and the sandcrabs and the shells, and the water feels so good we have to drag ourselves away.
Some people may read this and believe it is pointless. That we are too late. That none of it matters. The fossil fuel industry knows this is not true. Their fear of a determined, pissed off public is why they promoted campaigns of climate denial and “individual responsibility” in the first place. They knew if people were unsure about the problem, they’d waste time fighting about it instead of mobilizing to fix it. They knew if people were confused about the solution, they’d waste time trying to change themselves and each other instead of the system.
However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.
“Beckon the lovely.” Words I am remembering today from the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal, an author who memorably sought a good wife for her husband in her waning days “as a person on this planet.”
I discovered her a few years ago in a newspaper story about her life, death, and legacy. I had just finished reading about a Syrian war documentary and felt gutted. I wondered then, in a world of war and drowning children, could a person living a loving, generous, gracious, wise, creative life make any difference? The question is still pressing.
Back then, I googled her and got lost in her work. I found children’s books and memoirs and videos of her making beauty and fun. A Tedx Talk that said, “Whatever you decide to look for you will find.” If you look for the dark and disappointing, that is what you will notice. So you may as well look for the good. Beckon the lovely.
I try but it is not easy. I cannot sustain it. I see the dirty dishes left in the sink by my kids for someone else (guess who?) to deal with, and let annoyance set my mood. This “beckoning of the lovely” business takes practice.
In our garage, a mess of junk piled up over the years, owing to my hoarding tendencies. It must have been not long after I read about her that I retrieved a slat of wood from a broken bookshelf, saved because I thought it might become something. I wiped the dust and cobwebs off, found some old house paint, and in a once-a-year type inspiration, set out to make something.
A sign to remind me of that elusive but important aspiration. What you look for, you’re gonna find.
Sometimes when I sit outside, the air touches my skin like a smile.
Sharing a favorite post, our last morning of a cross-country drive last summer. One year ago there were no vaccines and an abundance of fear. There was an intensity to time, a sense of being closer to life and death, and a pace of being together with my kids that would not have existed without it. And a lesson from my grandfather that served me well.
I am dreaming that someone is driving our RV while we sleep. This concerns me because it isn’t supposed to be driven with the beds open. I wake to realize that the sound of the engine is only the air conditioner, and the RV’s rocking is from someone walking around, not rolling roads. Rain pelts our roof and I peek outside. We are nestled in a copse of trees that seem to meet at a point above us.
This is either our last day, or second to last. Christopher checks his map app one more time. Yesterday it told us we were 12 hours from our goal — twice as long as our average drive, and well worth another night on the road. But at this moment it says we are only 9 hours away, and hopes rise that tonight we will reach our destination, sleep in real beds.
But I draw a line: if I don’t move my body before we start driving again, there will be levels of crankiness no one wants to see. Besides, we are in the forest! Next to a lake! We don’t get that every day.
“Let’s go over to the beach.” Christopher and I are in agreement, and the boys do not protest.
We need to drive to get to the beach part of the lake, so we clean up, put everything back in its place so that we’ll be ready to roll when we’re done swimming. We pull away from our campsite and find a locked barrier across the final stretch of road leading to the beach. A sign says “Beach Opens 11 a.m.” Another says “Road Closed.”
Thank goodness for my grandfather’s guiding life philosophy, which helped an immigrant kid from Chernobyl fulfill his American dream, and has stood me well in settings like these: “It doesn’t say ‘absolutely.'”
We park our rig and walk around the barrier.
Actually, I jog — and I do not like jogging. But after a week of driving, my legs and heart are greedy for exertion, and they are taking what they want, step after step. It feels good to separate ahead of my family, to be alone in a circle of space for a moment, to hear the sounds of insects and squirrels and birds and leaves whispering. And yet, when the road curves, for a fleeting moment it occurs to me to hide and shout “Boo!” when they appear.
In the humidity, the jogging lasts maybe ten minutes. Maybe less. I keep walking until the lake opens before me. It is wider than the state park lake in Kansas, and wilder. I descend down a grassy panoramic expanse to water’s edge. About fifty yards to my left is the sandy beach and a small section of lake cordoned off by buoys and rope to designate a swimming area.
“I wish I brought my bathing suit!” Christopher exclaims as he catches up to me, his voice the definition of wistful. I know he is disappointed to miss a chance to submerge and swim.
“Take your clothes off and go in.”
A quarter century ago, before we were engaged, he and I walked along a stretch of beach near my apartment in Venice. There must have been moonlight. I must have had my shoes off, feet in the water, and it must have felt warm. There must have been a siren song, too, because I stripped and swam in. He added his clothes to my pile on the sand, and we floated and bobbed over waves. (That was the first and last time.)
I turn to look up the hill at my boys approaching, and when I look back for Christopher, I see his clothes hung on a hook and him gliding into the water, a look of peace on his face. We all walk toward him, each of us is weighing our options. He looks so content. The water is so warm. The boys take off their shoes and socks. Emmett removes his shorts, and Aaron pulls his sweatpants up to his knees. I remove my shoes and socks and roll up my sweatpants like Aaron, thinking it will be enough to wade in up to my shins.
It will not.
“Sorry, boys, you’re doing to have to deal,” I say, taking off my pants. I wade in to the height of my thighs, my hands gracing the water. Better, but still not enough. Back I go to the sand to hang up my shirt and — “Sorry again, kids” — and I am down to my skivvies. I plunge in. Emmett is in all the way, too. The three of us encourage Aaron to do the same, to come further, to do what we like. “Stop inviting me!” he implores. “I always thought I wanted to be included, but now I don’t.”
The water is as warm and soft as the air. I swim to the buoy and chain delineating the swimming space and repeat my grandfather’s mantra and go past. There is something in me that needs to prove — usually to myself — that I am not contained by others’ artificial boundaries. Is this despite my conventional life that appears completely contained by boundaries? Or because of it?
Later we will stand in our wet underwear trying to air dry enough to put our clothes back on. It’s not working, so I tell the boys that if they don’t want to see me naked they should look away, and then take off my wet stuff so I can put on my shirt and pants without soaking them. Feeling renewed, we start to head back to where we left the RV. Just then, the National Forest staff pull up. Clothed, in the nick of time.
“That your RV back there?” The man has a silver mustache and is driving a green golf cart. His voice drips Kentucky molasses.
“Yes sir, we thought we’d swim before a long travel day,” Christopher explains. I stand off to the side, my arms folded across my chest for modesty.
There is no reckoning or admonishment. There is only small talk and kindness. “Y’all be safe now, and y’all come back.”
It is my baby’s 17th birthday. The kid is funny, possessing a sense of humor that ranges from dry to raunchy, but always quick. He is thoughtful, inquisitive, and kind. I ask him if he would like to be my guest blogger today, offload my responsibility.
What does that mean? he asks.
You share your thoughts. I publish them.
He accepts. The first draft of his pearls of wisdom come without hesitation: Life is short. Eat cake.
Then he says, No no no, wait. He thinks more, then says, We waste our lives worrying about what we have to do instead of doing what we want to do.
It has been a while since he cried anguished tears over the cruelty of having to spend his childhood doing something he hated — going to school. The cure was pulling him out for a year of independent study; after that he could not wait to go to back. Nine months in, he and his generation got sent home again; be careful what you wish for.
I think about his words of wisdom while scrubbing egg off a pan and loading dishes into the dishwasher.
I guess washing dishes is a have to?
Yeah, I guess. The dishes have to get washed. Is it a waste of life to do it? He is playing a new video game, but listening: Though sometimes washing dishes can be relaxing.
Hmm. I notice the metal sponge in my hand scraping yellow and white off steel, the cool splash of water on this warm day, the proximity to him giving us a chance to chat, his observation transforming my have-to into want-to.
We came together for a weekend, five women in our fifties (well, one almost at that mile marker), friends for twenty-five years. Two years since our last in-person gathering, the world has changed. Four more kids have left the nest. Two fathers have passed, and one marriage.
I look forward to these convenings with a fervor. I love these women. They are brilliant and kind and fun. They helped me pass the Bar Exam, harness a Baby Bjorn, and pack a son for college. Their grace and perseverance, and their belief in me, carries me when I waver. They remember parts of me I have forgotten — most that I am happy to have back.
Our reunions, however, are not for reminiscing. This one especially is for extended hugs. For catching up. For checking in on the health and welfare of parents and kids. For running career options past a trusted council. For counsel. We eat. Drink. Cook. Walk. Float. Laugh. Cry. Laugh. Commiserate. Question. Debate. There are some things I do not share. Things I hold back because I have not yet spoken them to myself. Things to simmer on and bring back next time.
As we say goodbye, one passes a greeting and a message from her mother: You are so lucky to have each other.
I know this. And I also know that I take our friendship for granted, despite my best efforts, like I take the ocean for granted. It has been so reliable for so long.
How do you gather the gratitude you recognize in your head, so it can explode to bursting in your heart as you know it should? Is it a magic trick? Is it like a sponge holding water, invisible until you squeeze it and your hands and wrists are drenched? Are there things you can appreciate only when you lack them, like a hungry person longs for food the way a sated person cannot? The camaraderie, support and love of true friends over decades leaves me here, a saturated heart so full it cannot imagine life without it.
Community is a Fourth of July small town parade, dormant for a year, pushing out of hibernation toward sunlight. Tentative, yielding, finding its foothold.
Community is your kids’ high school friends watching the parade alongside you and your high school friends. Or not watching, but gathering on the sidelines to socialize, like you used to do at your high school football games. The parade goes by, or the game plays on, and you float along the stream of conversations, pausing to clap for an outstanding feat before retreating to that person, that thought, that sip of wine in a plastic cup. All down our block and through the town, people gather with the excuse of the parade. To gather is all we have wanted for a year and a half.
But community is also complicated. I do not know every neighbor on my block, not by name or by sight. I have mixed feelings about the parade and fireworks and the absence of nuance in both. The militaristic marching. The unnerving booming that damages our PTSD veterans and pets. The razzmatazz sparkles in the sky. The bass resonating against your breastbone. The collective “ohhhs.”
Community is conflicting perspectives butting up against each other. The graffiti painted in orange at the park — You celebrate a country that conquered native people, enslaved an entire race, and dropped two atomic bombs (undisputed facts) — against my silent answer that I celebrate a country that also self-embedded mechanisms to improve itself, and that elevates aspirational ideals. With liberty and justice for all.
Community requires holding a sincere curiosity about another person’s experiences, whether it is self-described liberal sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s deep listening to the people of a conservative community of Louisiana in her transformational book, Strangers in a Strange Land, or my curiosity and deep listening about the experiences of being Black in America, without feeling defensive or threatened.
Community is listening for the sake of understanding each other, for the goal of moving forward together to a better way. Community is arguing, as Jewish tradition requires, “for the sake of heaven” not victory, or as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interprets this, “out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness wish to prevail.”
The parade ends, people dissipate, the moment of community ebbs, we retreat to our homes, our comfortable silos, with a choice. Either we commit to listening, considering, and pausing before responding, or default to “knowing” what we want to know. Community is ours to have or to lose.
For fans of Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior and Trading Places: Becoming My Mother’s Mother by Sandra Bullock Smith, SANDWICHED by Laurie James, (on sale 6/23/21, She Writes Press) offers a hopeful example for women juggling the responsibilities of caring for elderly parents, dealing with a challenging marriage or a recent divorce, raising children, and seeking purpose in their life.
After her mother’s heart attack and an unexpected visit from her husband’s lawyer, Laurie James finds herself sandwiched between managing caregivers for her aging parents, raising four daughters, and trying to make sense of the overwhelm. Through trial and error, she learns to cope through therapy, yoga, rediscovering nature, and writing. Her memoir will resonate with even more people after a year in which so many families have found themselves sandwiched between their kids in virtual school, working, and concern for their elderly parents.
I am pleased to share this “Writer’s Life Interview” with Laurie James.
What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
I learned from my mother the importance of creativity, but it wasn’t until later in my life that I tapped into it.
My mother was an artist and a teacher most of her life. Growing up, I remember she decorated her classroom walls every fall and they always looked so imaginative. She also painted the most beautiful landscape mural on our living room wall that was there for at least twenty years. Many friends encouraged her to sell her artwork, but she always scoffed at the idea. She stopped painting and drawing when I was eight because she was too busy raising my two older brothers and me while teaching.
When I was young, I equated being creative with being an artist like my mom—not realizing that creativity has many forms. My stick figure drawings didn’t compare to my mom’s paintings, so I never identified myself as a creative type. I did not truly appreciate her talent until I was a young adult, and it wasn’t until I started writing that I realized the importance of expressing my own creativity. It took me several years after I began writing to identify myself as a writer and creative type. Now I honor my own creativity and see how it can foster ideas, dreams, and careers.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
Carpe Diem. I have always tried to live life to the fullest and now that my kids are out of the house, I have more time for that.
Who inspires you?
There are so many inspirational people in our world, but my four daughters are at the top of my list. They are all very different, but they are each following their interests and doing things I wish I had the confidence to do at their age. I am truly in awe.
Is there a charity or community service you are passionate about?
I find myself drawn to non-profits that help women and children improve their lives. I am an active member of a Los Angeles based giving circle. We pool our donation dollars together to support many non-profits that help the most needy in the Los Angeles area. It has been a very rewarding experience.
What are you reading now and what books do you recommend?
I am currently going through Martha Beck’s Wayfinder Life Coach Training, so I have three of her books on my nightstand: Finding Your Own North Star, Steering by Starlight and Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. I highly recommend any of them if you are struggling to find purpose and direction.
For pleasure, I recently read The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah. She is a beautiful writer.
Laurie James is mother, caregiver, divorcée, author and transformative coach. She enjoys coaching women who are searching for happiness and helping them discover what that means to them. An active community volunteer, she co-chairs a youth program for high school students, exposing them to a variety of career paths before they apply to college. She is an active member of a collaborative giving circle that pools donation dollars to help Los Angeles-based nonprofits.
Laurie graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a BS in business and was a corporate recruiter before staying home to raise her children. She launched her four daughters into adulthood and is the primary caretaker for her elderly parents. She lives in Manhattan Beach with her adopted husky, Lu. When she is not walking her dog, volunteering, or coaching, she can be found skiing, sailing, hiking, doing yoga, spending time with her girlfriends or planning her next adventure.