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Community

Community is a Fourth of July small town parade, dormant for a year, pushing out of hibernation toward sunlight. Tentative, yielding, finding its foothold.

Thanks to Katie O’Neill for sharing her painting (“Pali Marching Band” 18×14 oil on canvas), inspired by Mark Galasso’s photography of Palisades July 4th parade.

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.

My arts and crafts project from last summer adorns our porch with our flag, With liberty and justice for ALL.

P.S. Community is a writing group that meets online, with writers from all over the world expanding their circle for you and welcoming you to step inside, as told to the South Seattle Emerald.

Writer’s Life: Laurie James

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.

hoto by Bradford Rogne Photography

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.

Keep going

It was not only the pain that surprised me, but its staying power. For a full week my hamstrings ruled my life, keeping my strides short and slow, the unexpected ache a reminder that life was unpredictable. That the choices we make have ramifications beyond our awareness.

I had done 108 sun salutations in a row on a prompt from my yoga teacher. And I could barely walk. There had to be a lesson in here somewhere.

The practice had something to do with the equinoxes and solstices and a new age yoga tradition, our teacher said, as she announced at the beginning of class that that was what our next hour (or more) would hold. It felt like a dare, or being brought in on a secret. Since that day I have been wondering if I would do it again today, the summer solstice.

What is it about a dare? We dare ourselves to test our strength or will, accept challenges for our own entertainment or self-evaluation. Am I strong enough, determined enough, curious enough to try something new and complete it? And while yoga is not supposed to be a competition, I admit that is embedded in this practice for me, too – am I as strong in mind and body as others who complete this? (When my husband climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, those had to have been some of his motivations – to test his strength and determination, to satisfy his curiosity, and to harness his competitive nature with the powerful knowledge that Martha Stewart had summited the week before.)

So yes, each of these questions pushed me to start and kept me going when I wanted to stop. Then I waddled around in pain for a week wondering how something that in smaller amounts felt soothing and restorative could hobble me so? Too much of a good thing? If I repeat the practice today, will it lose some of its power because I have done it before? Our yoga teacher reminds us that every day we show up different. Some days our work or relationships flow, other days are more of a struggle.

So, yeah, I’ll try it again. I want to see what I’ve got today. My mind is not as set on success as it was the first time. That may make it harder to get there. I may need to take it in chunks of eighteens, or nines, or even threes. I may be reminded that there are many ways to complete something that feels too big, so big you might as well not even try. These are the lessons I anticipate, to be reminded that there is nothing too big, so long as we determine to keep chipping away at it, or building it, inch by inch, whether writing a book, or starting a business or repairing a relationship. The only way to find that rhythm, that flow, is to start. Feel your way, stretch yourself, breathe, rest, sip water, be gentle and forgiving, keep going.

Reopening

Tomorrow California’s economy reopens. What does it mean to reopen ourselves?

Remember where we were:

March 22, 2020. I’m online, a Zoom meditation, and I’m cheating. I need to get all those thoughts I cannot quiet written down. What are we eating this week, while we wait for our grocery delivery that probably won’t come until Thursday, or maybe Friday? Can I stretch it to last? There’s the chicken in the freezer, that can be soup, then chicken tacos, then maybe some stir fry. There are frozen hamburgers, dated July 2019, but I am willing to defrost those, have started to defrost, just in case. There are cans of crushed tomatoes, which maybe could hide that hamburger into chili. Or become masala, with the spice I found at the back of the pantry, used once, I do not remember when. There are crushed pineapples – why? I have never bought that before. NE-VER. But I threw them in my basket on my mad dash through the market, trying to shop as fast as possible, dodging the invisible errant vectors of virus that could be floating in the air (no one knows for sure). It was the opposite of my usual lingering over labels, the opposite of Me.

To read that is to understand what reopening means these fifteen months later, my family fully vaccinated.

Reopening means summer. It means that half the time I leave the house, I forget to bring a mask. (I regard this as a positive mental health development.)

Reopening means I can barge into my parents’ house, my face naked of cloth, and call out, “Anybody home?” without me or them fearing that I am a transmitter of death. It means me asking “Want to go for a walk?” and them answering “Let me get my shoes,” all of us forgetting that I could not do this a few months ago.

Reopening means a stroll along the bluffs carries greater concern about tripping than contracting a virus. It means fewer people are setting up chairs here, now that the beaches below are opened. It means looking down and seeing the beach is full today, clusters of colorful umbrellas, coolers, towels — a civic party. Reopening means I am tired from the two birthday parties I attended this weekend, and that I may need to retreat for some quiet. Reopening means adjusting.

There are still questions — are we really safe? Did we make it? What will come next? “Are those sailboats?” my dad asks, as if they have been gone for years, their casual presence confirming that life has returned.

Awaiting

Last Monday, Memorial Day, my mind was fixated on the asylum case I would present two days later — my first. It had been a rush of chutzpah three years earlier that brought me to this moment. In the face of the ubiquitous misery at the border in 2018, I had had the urge to do something. I discovered a local non-profit law firm that was training volunteer lawyers to take asylum cases they had vetted but did not have enough staff to handle. Although daunting, I figured that if they believed a lawyer like me, who had never done a trial and knew next to nothing about immigration law was up to the task, who was I to disagree? Their rationale was “it’s better than nothing,” and now the fate of a family was riding on that calculation.

Getting started, we had focused on the tasks at hand. We signed the the forms that said I was their pro bono lawyer, met for interviews, drafted their experiences into declarations fitting the framework of asylum law, and submitted the proper forms, all along squelching my fear and doubt about my ability to ably represent them in court the following summer, and trying to project confidence for their benefit.

Three months before their scheduled court date, it was postponed nearly two years to the spring of 2021. My heart sank — where some might expect them to welcome a delay, they longed for certainty. And we felt they had a winnable case. I consulted with my young mentor, who advised that the law could change in two year’s time, so I should table further work on the case until we were closer to the new hearing date. But the case and the family remained on my mind, my nerves building at low volume.

When it was finally time to resume our preparations, the case was postponed again, but this time only three months, to the summer of 2021. We got to work. I would need to write a brief explaining why their situation merited relief under the law, and prepare them to testify.

The closer we got to the court date, the higher my anxiety. I consulted my ever-patient mentor, now approaching a maternity leave, with frequent questions. As I worked on the brief, which would also be the basis for an appeal if we should lose (no pressure), I woke up every morning thinking about it, consumed with the fear of failing. The only thing that resolved my fretting over the brief was filing it. It was not perfect, but it was out of my hands.

Now it was time to prepare my clients to testify. I recalled that when our foster daughter had been preparing for her asylum case, her lawyers had scheduled several meetings to practice. I decided to do the same, though I was not sure exactly what to do during those meetings. Over zoom or facetime, we reviewed the questions I would ask them in court about the death threats to them and their children, the attacks and ambushes, their terror. I felt a rock in my stomach all day in anticipation of our afternoon and evening calls. Yet my burden was a grain of sand compared to what they carried, having to articulate their harrowing reasons for fleeing home fresh on their lips.

I had harbored a fantasy that when the government lawyer read my brief about their plight they would think, “Wow! Let them in! Request for asylum unopposed!” Of course, when I finally received the government attorney’s reply to my entreaties to discuss the case, her tone told me how naïve my hope had been. There would be a contested trial. I would have to go through with this.

Which brings us back to Memorial Day. The blooming spring and vaccine-engendered freedom inspired us to invite my parents, sister, niece and cousin for a small backyard barbeque. We ate hamburgers and hot dogs and played ping pong, exquisite activities after a year of quiet isolation. It helped to distract me from thinking about the last nervous day of what had become a three-year countdown to the asylum hearing.

I did not sleep well the night before the hearing. I stayed up late preparing, and in the morning my eyes popped open so early that I had time to do yoga breathing to settle myself down before leaving for court.

I checked the traffic app and left in time to arrive thirty minutes early. (To those who have known me long and well, this fact alone says everything about my mental state.) The months of worrying had motivated extreme preparation. I had arranged binders with evidence, briefs, relevant cases, direct testimony questions, and closing argument summary in my briefcase the night before. I had taken my one suit out of the closet and tried on my shoes to make sure everything still fit. I had identified a parking lot by the court and sent its address to my clients. I had transformed as many unknowns into knowns as I could think of.

Driving to the court, I recited aloud every question I wanted to ask my clients. I found a few better ways of asking them. I warmed up my voice and brain. This added to my sense of readiness. The time was here.

In front of the court, I waited for my clients to appear, impossible to imagine the nervousness they must be feeling. The stress of everything riding on this day. I cast my eyes toward the direction of the parking lot and saw a group that could be them, dressed as if for church. The children had to miss school, the parents had to miss work, but today was their moment, their chance to prove to a judge that they deserved the safety of America.

Before we entered the building, they asked me to take their picture. The kids protested, as kids do, but I agreed with the parents: This could be a day to remember in their family’s history. If everything went well.

Through security, up the elevator together, all with masks on, even the youngest, now five years old. She kept saying she was afraid of getting a vaccine and rubbing her arm; she thought this was a hospital and smiled with relief when I told her there were no doctors here. The eldest daughter would graduate from high school later that week. A party was planned for Friday. We hoped it would be a double celebration.

We were early enough that the courtroom door was locked. We waited. When it opened, I entered the well of the courtroom and took a seat at what I hoped was the correct table for the petitioner’s lawyer. I arranged my notebooks, laptop, and a yellow legal pad on the table within reach. The judge emerged, took her seat, and glanced at us before dialing into a “court call” system on a speaker phone. Here we go. She announced her presence, and asked who else was on the call. The government’s lawyer and the interpreter had both chosen to appear by phone, as Covid rules permitted. We wanted to be there in person. I wanted the judge to see this family. I wanted them to see me, to be able to reassure them as we proceeded. I wanted to be present in case of the unexpected.

I had not noticed two other people seated in the back of the courtroom, another lawyer and immigrant also expecting to present their case. The judge announced that she would proceed with his case first. He had been waiting for thirteen years.

So I piled up my notebooks and computer in one arm, and pulled my briefcase behind me into the hall with the other. My clients followed. Maybe his case would be quick, since it was only one person. Maybe we could start in an hour or two. Maybe we could continue after lunch. I was confident we would proceed.

An hour passed. I reviewed my questions and closing argument. Another hour passed. I gave the youngest child a pen and paper to draw with. One of her older siblings showed me some anime drawings she had done. “You could sell these,” I told her, and showed her Etsy. “I’m bored,” the five-year-old said, then danced down the hall.

At 10:30 a.m., the door to the courtroom opened, and the other lawyer waved to me, and then toward the courtroom. My presence was required.

I pulled my belongings in with me.

“Ms Diamond, we are not going to have time for your clients’ case today.”

The judge’s words hung in the air between us like a mist, despite the clear plastic partition that separated us. I did not speak, as if she might retract them if I did not acknowledge them. The one thing I had not prepared for.

The sinking feeling of not being able to control your destiny. The bargaining began – I asked, what if we stayed until afternoon? There was another case scheduled. What if they do not show up? The judge seemed to entertain this possibility, but the government’s lawyer’s disembodied voice on the speakerphone objected; there was a different government attorney for the afternoon calendar who was not prepared to oppose this case. The judge agreed; we would not proceed today.

The judge was kind, not gruff. She offered us the next closest day, five months away. Thanksgiving. She has another case scheduled that day, but only one, and our case is older so we will have priority. Someone else will be bumped.

I told my clients we would have to wait. Disbelief, then disappointment, then resignation. Making peace with what is. Later that afternoon when I checked in with them, I sensed that their voices were already lighter. Accepting the situation better than I could. Maybe it helped that this delay means there will be fewer unknowns when we return. Now they have seen the judge’s face, and the quality of light inside the courtroom, the placement of the witness chair where they will sit and tell her what happened and what they hope for.

Driving home past the beach, I thought of each wave pulling a billion grains of sand, tossing and displacing and depositing them somewhere new with each pull. The waves have no malice. The grains of sand no resentment. And this family, already displaced from where they had expected their lives to unfold, understands more than I do about adjusting expectations, flowing with the tide. I try to take my cue from them. We mark our calendars and take a breather. My body craves sleep. It will be days before the adrenaline drains from my body, before my breathing resets to normal.

Keepsakes

When a bedroom became my home office, I chose the things I wanted around me. A framed black and white photo of a pier. Books on writing, memoirs, poetry, and journals. A particular copy of The Giving Tree. This book remained precious even after a Women’s Studies classmate destroyed the ending for me (it really is terrible — give your whole self away…and happily!). This Giving Tree represents something else.

At sixteen, I went to a summer high school theater and dance program at Northwestern University for six weeks. Six weeks that felt, at first, like forever. Homesick for my friends and family and California. Exhausted from hours of dancing every day. Not sure how to insert myself into the social life that everyone else seemed to know how to do. Not sure anyone would want me to. One night, pressing back tears, I told a dance teacher that all I wanted to do was sleep, but thought I should go downstairs where everyone else was hanging out. He encouraged the latter instinct. “Yes. Go down there.”

I did, certain it would be horrible. That no one would say hello. That all friendships had been formed. I knew how this worked; there would be cool kids and outsiders, and I was never in the cool kid group. Down the stairwell of Allison Hall, unairconditioned in the Midwest humidity, I could hear the hubbub and laughter and energy of the theater kids splayed out all over each other on the lounge sofas. I pictured entering and no head turning. Or worse, heads turning, and then turning back. I walked through the wide opening to this lounge, and stood still. Then I heard my name called from someone sitting in the middle of everything. There was room.

Every day we had “movement for actors,” where we learned to salute the sun and mean it. We felt a connection to something bigger, something remembered and still reachable from childhood. We could be open and unafraid and unembarrassed and unencumbered. One morning, our teacher turned on the Talking Heads at high volume and let us go, and we danced like wild things, playful and with abandon. That album still opens that space in me.

The day before we were to go home, our teachers woke us early and told us to come downstairs, no questions. This was a time before cell phones (let us recall with gratitude), and a space of trust and connection had been built. We moved down the stairwells and followed them to a green space. In groups of ten or so, we stood in circles centered around a sapling and a shovel. We shared how we had grown over these six weeks, then planted our tree and blessed it with our intentions.

Then, we each received The Giving Tree, personalized and signed by every adult who had nurtured and watered us over these weeks. They had stayed up all night signing every book. They told a 16-year-old girl who was not the best dancer in her group — not by far — what made me special, that I gave my heart when I danced and that it had moved them. One signature stayed with me most, a blessing and an admonition from the same dance teacher who had nudged me to go downstairs that night: “Your artistry shone brightly here. Don’t ever hide it.”

I pick up this book every few years, read what my teachers wrote and wonder if I am living up to it. Some years more than others, they have reminded me that I am more than the family grocery-shopper and appointment maker. I am that sixteen year old who felt the sun on her face and stretched her arms out wide without a sense of cynicism or shame, and danced in a space free of judging myself or others. It reminds me of the power of rituals and words, and the way a few generous words can send a young person into a future with a sense of their power, the impact they have on others, and what they can aspire to. That the right words can remain a touchstone decades into the future. We all have an artistry — whether it is dancing, or writing, or making someone laugh, or baking a cake, or tucking in a child, or caring for a parent. Whatever yours is, may my teacher’s words be my gift to you today: Your artistry shines brightly. Don’t ever hide it.

Confidence

“Confidence is so overrated.”

I am on a zoom gathering of women writers that a guardian angel put in my path in late December or January. The group had been showing up daily since the second week of the pandemic shutdown last March. The idea was to begin their workday with camaraderie and accountability, to counter the isolation of the shutdown, to say “This is what I am working on today” and regroup a couple hours later to report on their progress (even if what is reported is a nap, a walk, a kid’s orthodontist appointment). They welcomed me — a stranger — with astonishingly seamless grace.

I come back week after week because writing takes cheerleaders. And mentors. And role models. I come back week after week to speak into existence a book that has been in process for years, and may be unseen for many more, if not forever. To make it real, like an imaginary friend they can see, too. When I feel stuck or dejected, there are voices saying, “we get it,” “this too shall pass,” and “try this.”

During one check-in, a discussion of “confidence” bubbles up. It can be elusive when what you are working on is so speculative. When thousands of hours could come to nothing tangible.

“Confidence isn’t the driver for me,” one says. “The driver for me is I have to tell this story. It’s passion.”

“Passion beats confidence every time,” another agrees.

Another says, “I don’t think I’ve ever really had confidence, but more a feeling of faithfully knowing I was meant to do something…most of the time I had no idea what would happen at the end.”

Faithfully knowing. This rings some internal bell. Faithfully knowing is stronger than intuition or a hunch, which are sometimes all you get and good enough. It is what guides us as we create — whether an essay, a painting, a meal, a relationship, or a life.

The challenge is to get quiet enough to hear that inner knowledge, and have the faith in ourselves to follow it. Voices shout over it and block it out. Fear. Anxiety. Self-doubt. They are all my voice, saying “Get real” and “Who do I think I’m fooling?” I turn up the volume on my computer and listen to these writers share what they are working on, and get back to work.

Guardian angels

We spent the weekend visiting our son in Eugene, Oregon, who had invited us to get a glimpse of his college life and spend time with him and his friends. Although I am not a jewelry person, on a whim I put a bracelet on before we left for the airport.

The only other jewelry I wear are my wedding and engagement rings, and a necklace that was a college graduation gift from my grandparents, a simple gold chain with a heart. I did not wear it much when it was first given to me; it was too “little girly” and too showy at the same time. But years later, I wore it at our wedding, which was one day after my grandparents’ 61st anniversary. Their heart over my heart felt just right for that day, then back into the jewelry box.

But eighteen years later, when my grandmother was diagnosed with a tumor in her jaw, I put the necklace back on. It was a reflex, like it could protect me from the coming loss as I began to understand that soon she would not be at the other end of my phone call or sitting on her sofa when I entered her apartment. I kept it on after she died and have worn it almost every day these three and a half years later. When I do take it off, it goes in a particular place of safekeeping.

My grandmother, Lilli, kept a few guardian angel pins in a little wooden box on her coffee table. They had been gifts from my aunt, a nod to Lilli’s oft-proclaimed belief that she had a guardian angel watching over her, who made sure everything always worked out. She did not wear these pins, but to me they represented her magic, a reminder of her world view. After she died, I asked if I could keep them, and they stayed together in their box on a table in my house.

I decided to pin one to my sweater when I accompanied my sister, mom and niece to help my niece move into her dorm room for her first year of college in St. Louis a few years ago. It was an emotional and busy weekend, and when it was time to leave, I put on the sweater with the guardian angel, but it was not there. Had it fallen off? I looked for it everywhere. In every drawer, behind and under the furniture until there was no more time to look. We had a plane to catch. I asked the staff if they would be on the lookout for it. I left my phone number with the hotel management but knew that I would not get a call.

As we pulled away in the taxi for the St. Louis airport, I berated myself for my carelessness. But soon I felt a sudden shift, as if my own guardian angel had whispered to me, and I realized that I was leaving behind a totem to watch over my niece, as if it had hidden itself from me on purpose.

Guardian angels cannot be seen or touched. They cannot be pinned to cloth or kept in a box. They are a belief system. A choice to assign meaning to luck. A way of feeling less alone, less vulnerable.

Yesterday, an hour into our flight home from Eugene, having spent some meaningful time with our son and seeing his world, I realized that my wrist was naked. The bracelet I had put on at the last minute had gotten tight in the night. I would call the hotel when we got home, but in my heart I said goodbye to that delicate chain. The things that count are not things.

And maybe that little bracelet is another piece of me left behind, a totem of love that charges the northwest air just enough to send sustenance to my son when he needs a vibration of home, something he cannot touch but might sense.

This is what I will remember.

(Or maybe, someone will find it and at least put my absent-mindedness to good use. May they wear it in good health.)

Permission

I was admiring my friend’s paintings, beautiful watercolors and abstract oils, when I said that I like painting but they always look like a pre-schooler made them.

“Permission to suck!” she clapped, like a ship captain bestowing a freedom. In three words, she gave me the mantra I needed, one I wished I’d had when my kids were little and did not want to try some new sport, or skill, or fill-in-the-blank, because they weren’t any good at it.

It seems that it was not only my children who needed “Permission to Suck”– the freedom to be a rookie, a beginner, to find joy in something even if I am no good at it.

So in the spirit of this permission, here are more permissions I grant myself:

Permission to say what I think.

Permission to succeed according to my own definition.

Permission to be small, a drop in the ocean, a glint of sun. Permission to be vast.

Permission to feel sad, confused and adrift, and to take time to find my bearings.

Permission to lapse from confidence to self-doubt, and to remember that these are stages of the human and artistic process. Permission to take all the time it takes.

Permission to be contented in a world with so much pain, as long as I am not content with there being so much pain. Permission to skip reading, watching, or listening to the news as many days as I want.

Permission to take five deep breaths, and to let them out slowly, whenever I need. Permission not to argue.

Permission to enjoy chocolate and wine and my perfectly soft belly.

I give myself permission to follow many interests, even in a society that wants us to plant a flag and say “this is who I am” (meaning “this is what I do“), a culture that is uncomfortable with blurry lines and multiple pursuits.

May you give yourself permission to walk an untrod path, push back the overgrowth, get scratched, double back and try another way, using whatever tools are at hand, sometimes only faith that there will be a place to step.

Making a new path, circa 2010.

What have you done because you gave yourself permission to suck? What might you try if you did? What other permission do you give yourself and others?

Dangerous

I feel most alive when I’m doing something dangerous.

These words, spoken by my then-ten-year-old son, gave me pause. What dangerous feat did he have in mind? We were in the car on our way to Hebrew school, pretty much the antithesis of “thrill.” Maybe it was this juxtaposition that drew the thought from his mind to his breath. I believed him. In the time it took for the traffic light to change from red to green, I played out his future as a spy or sky-diver. I said a Mother’s Prayer to keep him safe.

Not me. I do not do something every day that scares me (no matter who may have said that is a goal to live by). I do things for pleasure. For obligation. And out of habit. But not to scare myself. Not even rollercoasters.

But today I am scared. I am on the precipice of my first asylum hearing as a pro bono lawyer, five weeks away. And I’m sweating.

How did I get here? Three years ago, in a fit of manic chutzpah, I volunteered to do this. What was I thinking? I had no experience in immigration law! No trial experience at all! But the country was in the thick of families being separated at the border – remember? – and I had to do something. I went to protests. I visited immigrant detention centers to do “chaplaincy visits” with women who had broken no laws but were locked up, mothers who had lost children and teenage girls who had fled abuse. It was rough, but I don’t know if we accomplished anything by sitting for an hour, talking or listening.

One young mom, Carolina from the Dominican Republic, had been locked up there for 14 months, her children home with her mother, and she needed a lawyer. That night, I told my family about her. My son (the thrill seeker) asked in genuine confusion, Aren’t you a lawyer? I said Not that kind, and thought of all the things I didn’t know about immigration and asylum law. But you ARE one, he persisted. It was so simple.

His plain observation got stuck in my head. So, just to see what was out there, I Googled “volunteer immigration lawyer.” Most non-profit law firms wisely took only experienced immigration attorneys, because it is a complicated field. But I discovered Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, which trains lawyers from other fields to do asylum and other immigration cases. The need for lawyers was too great to limit the pool, they reasoned; any lawyer was better than none. They trained me. They assigned me a case. I met my clients: mom, dad, and four sweet daughters from El Salvador. He had been a police officer; his and his family’s lives had been threatened. Shit got real.

After only a few months, the case got postponed for two years. It felt like a reprieve. While it lay fallow, I stuffed down the fear of knowing this family was in my inexperienced hands.

No more waiting now. Briefs are due this week. I wake up thinking about it, worried that I will miss something important. But their fears are bigger than mine, so I put on a face of confidence to reassure them. I work hard. I ask my mentors for help. I close my eyes and picture us rejoicing in victory in in the courtroom.

Why do we do scary things for thrills? Why do we seek out adrenaline rush as entertainment? And what did my ten-year-old know of this? Maybe we scare ourselves to test our own courage, to build the muscles we need for facing the un-fun fears of life: The uncomfortable but necessary conversation. The honest self-reflection. The mid-life career change. The possibly unrequited proclamation of love. The possibility of falling on your face in public. The not knowing what comes next.

“Manifest,” some would say, so here goes: In five weeks, may the relief of winning asylum be so great that this family finds a measure of healing, and so thrilling that I want to do it again.