Seen through a Snowstorm: Creations Take On Their Own Life

We drove to Mammoth to celebrate my firstborn’s birthday: 15.

FIFTEEN. To you that may sound little, depending on your point of view, but indulge me. It’s as big as he’s ever been.

The weather conspired against us. It will snow all day, both days, with 50 mph winds. Lucky me, I’d decided in advance that I wasn’t skiing this time. It’s not my cup of cocoa, let’s say; I am preoccupied with falling, even before I put my boots on. My job today is ski support from the comfort of the lodge, writing and reading contentedly. Family bonus: I spare my husband having to worry about me while keeping track of the kids, too.

It’s not about the skiing, anyway, our trip. It’s about board games. It’s about meals together, and movies in the room. It’s even about the travel days, together in a car driving through California’s desert-to-mountain landscape. It’s the offhand conversations, singing with the radio, brothers watching TV shows sharing an iPad… and no fighting all day?! This is the good stuff. This is the good stuff. Did I mention 15?

At this moment I am sitting in the lodge looking out at near white-out conditions. My feet are cold despite two pairs of socks and boots. I’m supposed to be working on Novel 2. I’m in the first draft. I feel like I’m still learning how to write — in a good way — and hope to always feel that way. Bits of positive feedback for Shelter Us still trickles in, which feeds my determination to keep on writing. Like yesterday, I received an e-mail from a fellow She Writes Press author, Barbara Stark-Nemon, who had just read it and kindly shared with me the review she’d posted on Amazon and Goodreads. It began with a quote that I thought sounded so beautiful and then I realized, happily and with surprise, Duh, she’s quoting ME. I didn’t recognize my own words. My sentences took on their own life, they were not part of me anymore. They grew from me but became themselves.

I glance up and outside to the mountain. The glare is bright and my eyes take a moment to adjust. There’s the ski lift, there’s a tree, there’s the snow blowing across the sky. A faint body moves against the mountain through that snowy haze. I can’t see my boys, but I know they are out there, separate from me and gloriously growing into themselves, swooshing or falling all on their own.

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Friday Reads with new friends

I would spend every day going to author panels if I could. I wouldn’t care if I were the author or the audience. Give me a room of 80 people who made special time in their day to talk about what they are reading, what they are writing, all gathered in honor of the written word. Except for snapping a few photos, cellphones were nowhere to be seen. I heard not a word about apps or chargers or data. Ah, sanctuary.

I joined Aline Ohanesian (Orhan’s Inheritance) and Gwendolyn Womack (The Memory Painter), two generous, funny, tenacious story-tellers. (You have to read them.) I still pinch myself, I told the audience, every time I come up to a podium and remember that I’m one of the authors.

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The most delightful person I met today (and there were many) was someone who may be behind the podium in the next decade: 12-year-old Ally, granddaughter of the Friends of the Library President, who was very excited because “she had never met a writer in person.” Imagine my delight when she took the seat next to me, and I got to ask her all about her home on a small island off the coast in Washington State. I told her. “I can’t wait to read your story.”

Happy Friday, everyone. What are you reading?

 

How Trump Inspired Me to Teach My Children

“Did you hear what Trump said about keeping Muslims out of America?” I asked my son the other morning before school. He was looking at the L.A. Times Sports section while I made breakfast. It was the week after the mass murder in San Bernardino, and we hadn’t talked about it. Maybe because I’d been too anxious about all of it, or too busy with getting life taken care of — kids to school, work done, make dinner, repeat.

“Well, they do sort of want to kill us,” he answered softly. His face said, “isn’t that a reasonable move?”

My stomach dropped as I questioned my bona fides as a parent: Had I allowed my child to become a xenophobe? Where had I failed?

Actually, I understand how a young teenager could feel this way. If you read headlines that “Islamic terrorists” are killing people around the world and down the freeway, it is not irrational to agree with the simplistic sentiment “we should stop letting them in until we get to the bottom of this.”

Folks are scared. So the plain notion — keep ’em out, lock the doors — makes sense, unless you read beyond headlines. Unless you are aware of history. Unless you remember America turning away Jewish refugees, and interning Japanese Americans. Unless you know context. And as his mother, that’s where I come in.

I confess, we haven’t talked much about terrorism. His world view is based on many things, but he doesn’t know what I believe, and he needs to know. He may not know that while terrorists claim to be “Islamic” they do not represent Islam. It is not top of mind that targeting any religious group – creating registries, shutting down places of worship, banning refugees – is 100% contrary to American values, and our Jewish values.

I am ashamed of my omission. I grew up in a home where we debated politics, where my parents taught us about initiatives or candidates they supported or opposed, and why. I thought I’d recreated that home just by being myself, but clearly I hadn’t. Or not enough.

How did that happen? It dawns on me that, unlike my parents, I shield my kids from many aspects of my life rather than incorporate them. Where my mom schlepped me with her to the market or dry cleaner or political rally, I go to the market — and call my Congressman — while my kids are in school. It’s easier for me. But the consequence is I am not transmitting my values. We miss opportunities to talk. And in these times, it is more important than ever to talk about what we believe, what kind of world we want to live in.

Back in the kitchen, my heart raced as I envisioned my son slipping into the darkness of Trump-ism because I hadn’t taught him better. I had one minute to set him straight before sending him off to school. I trotted out everything I could think of, not sure what might pierce his focus on the NFL match-ups for the weekend:

“Islam is not a violent religion. Most Muslims are peaceful.”

“Muslims are just like Jews and Christians. We’re cousins!”

“If a bad guy was a Jew, that wouldn’t make all Jews bad, would it?”

“Remember when we visited Manzanar, the internment camp? That’s what happens when we scapegoat an entire group of people, when we act based on fear.”

“Even Dick Cheney thinks Trump is off his rocker!”

He puts the paper away, ties his shoes, and I take a breath.

“Did you hear anything I said?”

“It’s okay, Mom. I understand.”

There is so much more to say. I want to tell him that the world is a safe place, despite the headlines, and that we do not have to live in fear, or act out of fear.

I need to work on my speech, but the conversation has started.

Almost, but not quite

I can’t get my sister’s comment out of my head. The one I told you about, that she wished she had noticed the day before her daughters grew taller than her.

Maybe it was the setting in which she said these words — a 19th birthday celebration, the birthday girl-woman’s feet balanced on the tectonic plates of childhood and adulthood, bumping against each other.

Or maybe it was the wide blue ocean behind my sister as she spoke matter of factly about this milestone going unnoticed, that taunted, rolled its eyes and shrugged at this infinitesimal, irrelevant tendency of children to grow up, that impressed her words on me.

Or maybe it’s because, as my friend Monica told me, once they start high school everything speeds up. It’s the last measurable stop before adulthood.

They are rare, these concrete ways of measuring maturity. I know one more:

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Almost, but not quite.

 

 

 

 

They Get Taller Than You

Sometimes the most biting truths, the ones that come as the biggest shocks, are the most obvious. You miss them because they are in you, you are breathing them.

For instance, my sister said the other day, speaking of her daughters: “I never had the conscious thought, ‘One day I will wake up and they will be taller than me.’ I knew it, but I never thought about it. Then when it happened I thought, I wish I could go back to yesterday and just be aware that that was the last time.”

I had my own “so obvious I refused to look at it” moment last week. Those kids you’re so consumed with raising to be responsible, productive, independent souls, will someday actually go do that. They will become their adult selves, they will move out and onward and become people you have to make a date to see for dinner.

Of course this is not news — we began saving for college when they were born — but I have refused to look at it. Maybe it is denial. Or maybe it is getting caught up in the demands of today, that tricks you into feeling that your life will always be exactly as it is right now.

In my first year as a mother, I spent so many red-eyed 3am’s rocking my baby in my arms that I felt that that would be my life forever. I would forever hold his entire weight in my arms and absorb the rhythms of his body in my heartbeat.

It’s all I can do now to remember that feeling.

So last week the realization that time is passing grabbed my face in its palms. It forced me to look at it. My sons are 11 and 14, which translates to “we have time, but also, not so much.” That infant is in high school.

What prompted this realization? A jokey conversation we had about how much my teen is going to love living on his own, doing what he wants, watching football all weekend uninterrupted. The next morning, I woke as though remembering bad news, recalling that conversation. Then I came downstairs with a different attitude toward making breakfast and packing lunches. It’s just a short time more. It’s just a short time more.

It was the same lesson I learned in that dark bedroom, the first year of his life: “This is finite. Be in the moment.” It settled me down, reminded me that the bad and the good of it were not forever. Life’s plans would catch up to us. Mothering babies taught me to be in the moment like nothing before or since. It’s part of why that first year felt like it lasted so long. Each day had more in it.

That’s all I want now — to elongate the days together. But staying in the moment is harder with bigger kids. The days race by. They play on their own. They want their own space. I try to stay close. I offer a back scratch. I look at them and wonder if today is the last day I am taller than them.

“Not Everything Is About Parenting…”

“Not everything is about parenting,” a wise man told me recently, kindly, with a smile. It got me thinking, why for me does everything always get back to parenting? Am I stunted? Do I have tunnel vision?

Maybe because I learn the most from the people who call me Mom, and I’m trying to live up to the responsibility of passing good values to them.

Of all my vocations — including part-time lawyer and writer — Mom is what matters most to me. I don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about how to win a case, or how to craft a plot, as I do trying to be the best mom I can be. (Emphasis on trying.)

When my son’s bike went missing from the front of his elementary school, instead of rifling off, “That stinks. We’ll get you a new one,” the parenting questions rocketed across the sky, whistling “there’s a teachable moment here!” as they flew by.

I had told him that in our little town, it was okay not to lock his bike. I had taken joy and pride from the feeling that I was giving him a childhood free from fear and violation. When he lamented “why did this happen?” I had choices of how to answer. Should I teach him to cast blame — say, “maybe it was one of the homeless people who live here now, or one of those high school students who walks past every day?” Should I shrug and say  “I don’t know” and quietly commiserate? Or should I say, “I’m not saying it’s okay to take something that belongs to someone else, but maybe someone needed it more than you do”? Would that cushion the blow, give him gratitude for knowing that he can have a new one with the snap of his fingers? I don’t know if I’m right, but I chose the last two.

And what about replacing his bike? I recall how I felt when my beloved red Radio Flyer tricycle was stolen from our driveway when I was three years old. I was fatalistic: “Well, my friend, we had a good time together, but now you’re gone. It was good while it lasted.”

When my grandfather immediately replaced it with an identical red Radio Flyer tricycle, I wasn’t purely overjoyed. I remember feeling surprised, even confused. “You mean, you get more than one tricycle in this life?!?!” A quick replacement was my family’s way of making things all better. And while I’m sure I enjoyed riding the new one, in some ways it cheapened the beauty of my love affair with my first tricycle. It was replaceable.

So of course, being me, I thought about this when considering whether, how quickly, in what manner, to replace my son’s bike. On the one hand, he shouldn’t be bike-less forever because I had told him it was okay not to lock his bike. He wasn’t careless with it. And he rides it to school every day. But I paused before replacing it too quickly, remembering that feeling that if everything is replaceable, they lose their meaning.

Ultimately, my son quickly graduated from feeling hurt to, “The silver lining is I get my first new bike! Can I have one that is neon green with blue stripes?” I scoured the landscape to get him exactly what he wanted, which, as family tradition would have it, was gifted by his grandparents. The look on his face — and the spit-take — were priceless.

Do I overthink things? Yes! But is it the worst thing to consider what lessons I’m imparting with my actions and words? While raising children can be overwrought and over-thunk in this day and age (especially by yours truly), taking time to pause, to consider my response, is how I consider what kind of person I want to be. I don’t have all my answers yet.

The truth is, I’m figuring the world out right along with my kids. So if parenting is the effort to consider what are my values, and what values do I wish to pass to the next generation, then perhaps everything should be about parenting. I think this wise man would agree.

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I Need A Hero: The Family Room Scene

The setting:

A family room in California. Late September, 5pm. A smattering of worn socks are strewn on the floor, alongside a sneaker and a flip flop. Lego pieces, the small ones perfect for inadvertently stepping on, hide in the carpet’s pattern. A throw blanket that had been strategically placed by the mother on the dirt-stained arm of the sofa is strewn on the floor, next to last week’s classwork spilling out of a backpack. A licked-clean popsicle stick takes up company on the floor with an empty plate that looks like Nutella may have been consumed there. We hope it was Nutella.

A child reclines on the sofa, absorbed in Volume 4 of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. He folds the page where the next chapter begins, and lumbers over to a stool next to his mother, who is just now reading the newspaper.

Kid: (Sighing) I think I want to join the Army. Or Something.

Mom: Well, that’s two different things. The Army, and Something. What’s Something?

Kid: I don’t know. I want to be a hero. Like Percy Jackson.

Mom: There are a lot of ways to be a hero that don’t involve bullets.

Kid: Like a fireman?

Mom: Uh huh…Actually, I was thinking of something else. I was reading about MacArthur Geniuses, and one hero who’s an environmental engineer, who learned how to take wastewater and turn it into energy.

Kid: I just like to fight.

Mom: I have an idea.

Kid: What is it?

Mom: You’ll be my hero when you pick up your socks, Legos, and dirty dishes.

Kid: #&$%#

And…SCENE!

 

Letting Your Kids Get Hurt, and Watching Them Heal, From a Loving Distance

Disclaimer: As I’ve mentioned other places, I opened up to the idea of Torah study only when I realized that you didn’t have to believe it is the literal word of God, or even believe in God, to get something out of it. When I learned that I could consider it a literary gift from generations before me who wrestled with the big, human questions that I wrestle with now, then I could freely read and see what there might be to learn from it. Some weeks my mouth opens and my eyes tear up at how pertinent it is to me.

So…a little bit of Torah and motherhood, coming up.

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When I told a friend that my two favorite appointments of the week are CardioFunk and Torah study, he responded, “That’s a good balance.” He’s right. Because balance is not about finding a moderate, static, placid lake to float on and stay there; balance is about sometimes riding the biggest wave, pushed by their power and danger, and other times reclining on the beach with a book.

Where dance class is joyful, fast, breathless, soaring and sexy, Torah study is careful, patient, thoughtful, peeling back layers of meaning, an inner adagio. After dance class, I am spent, dopamine-brained, and mellow, wanting nothing but a shower and a nap. After Torah study, I have learned something, if I’m lucky I’ve had a new insight, however small it might be.

 

This week Torah study was, for a mother of teens and a tween, a lesson in launching adolescents into the world. 

We are at the end of the Torah’s tale, before we re-roll the scroll and start again at the beginning. It’s a story we read at the time of year when we are thinking about the kind of person we ought to be, how we have measured up over the past year, how we are going to try to do better.

In the story, Moses tells the Israelites that he’s not going to go with them into the promised land. He knows they’ll be worried to bits about going without him. So, like a good parent, he tells them (in my words) “You can do it on your own. You will be fine. I trust you. And God (or perhaps that true compass in your gut that guides you) will be with you. You can do it without me.”

I think of the baby I saw a few days ago on the verge of sleep, perched on her father’s lap, her head leaning against his chest, and her little hand resting on his arm. Gently, with two fingers her father stroked her cheek, her eyebrow, over and over, until she let go of wakefulness, content and secure.

I wished I could still soothe my kids with just that touch now. But their world has bigger concerns. Friends can become distant — or worse — without explanation. Teachers can unwittingly be harsh. The world can feel unwelcoming. I stand behind them whispering encouragement. “Go for it. You can do it. I trust you. God is inside you. You are so loved. You are so loved.”

I recite a silent prayer for balance, to be more loving and to let them go without me.

I remind myself that life is filled with hurts and with healing, with hard times and coming through hard times, with celebrating the safe passage to a promised land, and all that is gained in the difficult journey: The confidence born of seeing your own resilience. The dawning certitude that others do not define your worth. That your acts, the ways you treat people, define you. 

I stand back in awe as I watch them walk into uncharted territory, into the world’s hurts and its bounty, with courage, forward motion, sometimes sadness, and ultimately with optimism that they will find the promised land they so deserve.

 

 

 

In Honor of Oliver Sacks: “Home School” Day

Yesterday the little one felt sick-ish. The kind of sick that comes from school starting in August, and it being so hot, and yes maybe there is a little tummy virus going around. The kind of sick that let him swim in the ocean with his brother at sunset last night.

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The kind of sick that inclines his mother to let him sleep past the time he’d have to wake up and rush to get ready for school this morning. The kind of sick that prompts her to declare this Monday a “home school” day, because where his mind travels when unencumbered is vastly more interesting than what happens in any one day of school.

To wit: He enters the dining room this morning, where I am reading Oliver Sacks’ obituary, one of this era’s most unique life stories: sent at six years old to an English boarding school with an abusive headmaster at the onset of World War II; returned home at ten years old, to fall in love with the periodic table of elements and its unchanging, unemotional constancy; taught at eleven years old by his surgeon mother to dissect humans; and growing to become the unconventional, compassionate scientist and humanist we came to know through his words.

It is into this mindset my boy presents himself for evaluation. He holds his stomach with both hands, a low grown emanating from his lips. (And to think he says he doesn’t like acting…).

I look up from the newspaper and feel his forehead, kiss his cheeks.

“I don’t think I have a fever,” he preemptively says. “I feel a little cold.” This spoken observation turns his gears. He sits down next to me and thinks. “You know what’s weird,” he continues. “When it’s 80 degrees outside we feel so hot. But when we touch our skin and we are 98.6 degrees, we feel normal.”  And…I have made my decision. We have a question that will be more fascinating to him than fractions or long division or today’s grammar lesson. I declare today a “home school” day.

I should know better; experience teaches me that his spoken observation will probably be the length and breadth of his inquiry. That I have exaggerated ambitions for how a “home school day” will go. That he will spend his day not exploring human biology but playing Legos (okay, fine) and pleading to watch noxious cartoons (which will turn me into a white hot meanie). But it’s early yet, and my fantasies are not yet splattered.


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So we hope for a day that is not wasted. A day that would honor Sacks, who wrote after his diagnosis of metastasized cancer, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me….to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

I come to my blank page, the calming sound of Legos being sifted and rearranged in the room next to me, and begin a morning of writing. I pray for that unadulterated voice to play in my head, the one that must be captured in the moment I hear it, because it evaporates just as quickly. When it comes it is a flash of nirvana. It is finding true north.

When the words don’t come like that, which is most of the time, I must poke around for them, writing too much, sweeping away the excess. The goal in it all? To create characters that reveal the beauty and mystery of the human experience as richly as the character the world has known as Oliver Sacks — as intriguing, seductive, textured and fascinating a character as any that has ever been written.

The Legos still sift behind me. Questions are asked, prompting more questions — “Are sharks mammals? What makes a mammal? Is it hair? Why do our heads grow so much hair?” A day of inquiry and investigation is still possible. He has yet to sneak off with his iPod, and I have yet to have to snatch it from him, leading to the inevitable kerfuffle. There are books yet to write and to read. Discoveries yet to make. The day is young. Everything is possible.

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Philadelphia, Stories

When I was a student at Penn, most of my activities were limited to a square 1/2 mile of its West Philly campus — classes, rehearsals, libraries, parties. Occasionally I ventured downtown. There was the (impressive but ineffective) rally for Michael Dukakis in front of City Hall. There was my weekly SEPTA ride to an internship at the Women’s Law Project. And there was lovely, leafy Rittenhouse Square, an area I had no particular business in, but which appealed to my west coast eyes and ears with its older, sophisticated sensibility.

Flash forward (ahem) years to 2015, and I walked up to the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square to see its window filled with my first novel. BN Window

It’s hard to put that feeling into words. I’ll try, and then I’ll let the pictures tell the tale.

When I graduated from Penn and returned home to Los Angeles, I could not have known that some day I would marry a boy from Pennsylvania, that his family would become my extended family, and that they would be some of my biggest supporters. Time passes so swiftly that I can sometimes forget I’m not a “newcomer” still, that I’ve known them nearly 19 years.

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My Philadelphia PR team (and cousins) extraordinare, Sharla Feldscher of SFPR…

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…and PR maven and super cousin Hope Horwitz of SFPR.

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Happy happy joy joy.

Philadelphia book signing!

Suzanne Myers from Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Philadelphia joined us, accepting a donation to the agency from book sales that evening.

Deborah Waxman

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College, was in attendance!

I talked about the connections between Shelter Us and the values Jewish Family & Children’s Services represents, helping others, welcoming the stranger. One woman pointed out that being “a stranger” does not always refer to the stereotypical outsider I’d referred to — a homeless person, an immigrant — and that money can mask stranger status. She choked up. I did, too.

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I kinda see my Dad’s face in my expression.

At Q&A time, my son asked: “Did you ever have doubts about some of the things you included in the book?”

Yes, I answered. Doubt abounds. But when the time came to finish, I had to let it be. I hope I modeled something for him and his brother. To follow elusive dreams. To celebrate achievements. And to be grateful for the people who celebrate with you.

My favorite readers.

My favorite readers.

Thank you, thank you, one and all.

Humbly yours,

Laura/Mom.