Comfort

Close your eyes and let the sound float around your mind. Comfort.

The word itself feels like something. Like the softest sweatpants you have been living in for months, and the fuzzy socks that keep the hard floor and the cool morning air at a cushioned distance. The couch you sink into after dinner with your belly full, blanket pulled over your knees, the sleepy dog coming to nestle against your hip, its head on your lap, your fingers combing fur. Comfort, as a thing, is tactile.

But the action, to comfort, is harder. How to give comfort? How to heal a dear one’s wounds?

When my father-in-law died almost one year ago, we were inexperienced in loss. I tried to drip words like a salve over my husband’s grief, but grief is a place too deep for words to reach. “Tell your wife you need a lot of hugs,” the grief counselor said. The act of comforting is tactile, too.

I have read that it takes 20 seconds for a hug to release oxytocin.

Yesterday my friend held a funeral for her father, and we gathered online to comfort her, to offer the solace of our virtual presence. We could not comfort with our touch, only our faces and the awareness that we were present. But we are adaptive, we humans, and I think over the past year of virtual connection we have learned to imagine that last comforting mile, to bridge the gap between screen and actual togetherness. To feel the effect of connection.

During the virtual funeral, the rabbi read a poem, “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy. Maybe you’ve heard it too, this year? The moment came when the rabbi recited these lines,

And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

and I leaned against my husband and took his hand, knowing how deeply he wished he could hug his father.

Hugs may be hard to come by in these days of isolation, but there is some comfort to be found in other places: in the sound of a friend’s voice on the phone, much richer than a text. In sorting through old photographs that spur buried memories of your babies’ smiles, a trip with friends, a dance floor moment resurrected. There is some comfort to be be found in playing the song that reminds you of your first kiss, or in cooking the meal your loved one loved best.

There is some comfort to be found in sitting quietly, intentionally, and recalling the of sensation of loving and being loved. In knowing that, although we cannot touch their love, we can feel it.

May we find the comfort we need, and be the comfort for others.

___

The complete poem is lovely, so I’ll share it here.

Epitaph, by Merrit Malloy

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

A Prayer for Leaders from Dr. King.

I do not know what a prayer is, though I have recited my fair share. I know it is more than a wish, or hope, or thanks. It is outward — a conversation with the universe. And inward — uncovering an intimate truth.

P-R-A-Y. Pop of lips, rip of air, long sigh of an open mouth. Pray. Move the air with your breath in the direction of another being. Will they even know you’ve done it? Can a prayer shrink a tumor? Bring success? Repair a country?

Why pray?

Pray because words exhaled together may shift something too cosmic for our animal brains to know or understand.

Pray because sometimes it is all you can do — when you are not the one who wields the scalpel or sews the sutures or bathes the infirm; when you are not the one placing a hand on a Bible swearing to lead a country out of chaos; when you are on the periphery of your friend’s pain, and it means something to her that you promised to do it.

Pray not because it changes the world, but because it changes you,” my rabbi’s answer. Pray because it focuses your intention. Propels your next steps. Rebuilds your strength. Restores your equipoise.

Pray because it is a love offering. Because nothing is wasted. Because it couldn’t hurt. Pray because it is your impulse and that is reason enough.

This week, pray to fulfill the words the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 65 years ago:

To do this job we have got to have more dedicated, consecrated, intelligent and sincere leadership. This is a tense period through which we are passing, this period of transition and there is a need all over the nation for leaders to carry on. Leaders who can somehow sympathize with and calm us and at the same time have a positive quality. We have got to have leaders of this sort who will stand by courageously and yet not run off with emotion. We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom. God give us leaders. A time like this demands great leaders.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Aug 11, 1956, “The Birth of a New Age” Address on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

I do not know how to pray. I cannot proclaim that I believe in its power. I pray anyway. For so much.

Dance with me: a love letter

“Oh very young, what will you leave us this time

You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.”

– Yusuf Islam

Dance with me: a love letter

This petite memoir is a love story — love between parents and children, husband and wife, grandparents and grandchildren. Between dancers and dance. Between humans and being.

Maybe this is a love story about love itself.

Written it in staggered moments over the three years since my grandmother Lilli Diamond died, it is no accident that it came to completion during a time of isolation, a time when pandemic sent everyone home and took our cherished gatherings away — for me, my Sunday dance class, a place where I felt my grandmother’s presence so vividly.

Today, October 16, 2020, would have been her 105th birthday. Let this be my small gift from the heart to her and to you. Dance with me.

Dance with me: a love letter

Breathe in the New Year

Never have we needed a new year like we do now.

Summer’s blessing of an unhurried pace is already forgotten. We have reverted to our scheduled-beings ways: Wake up. Get dressed. Make lunches. Kiss goodbyes. Go.

Go go go.

In the car, I check the news radio for breathless reports of hurricanes and earthquakes. Over breakfast, I read the L.A. Times’  latest science on earthquake forecasting. I carry the anxiety of the bystander as I prepare for doomsday. I buy gallons of water and canned food. I buy candy, because if you’re eating Chef Boyardee and diced peaches, you deserve as much chocolate and red vines as you can get your hands on. I buy flashlights, and work gloves, and put sneakers in arm’s reach of everyone’s bed.

I need to breathe. I downloaded a meditation app a month ago. Every morning my phone gently reminds me “It’s time to meditate,” and every morning I promptly and consistently…ignore it. Ten minutes? Maybe later.

My kids need to breathe. They’re stressed, beyond the norm. Okay, I put on the app during breakfast as background sounds of trickling water and birdsong plays. We take a deep breath.

Ahh. That felt good.

The Jewish new year is like the app, trying to break through my day and schedule, and “I’ll get to it later’s” — a gentle reminder I have to choose to accept: Take a deep breath, it says.

I do. I will. Ahh, feels good.

Happy new year. Love, Laura

(You can read my new year’s posts from last year , 2013 and 2009, and reprinted below)

 


2016: “The Only Three Words You Need”

Every year I go to Rosh Hashanah services with expansive hope, born out by experience, that some wisdom and truth from our tradition will land softly on my heart and I will take it with me through the next year as comfort and north star.

For me, the wisdom and truth I longed for this year came in a brief comment by our rabbi. She mentioned that the author Anne Lamott has written there are only three prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow. This became my simple and complete prayer. I stood with my eyes closed and silently repeated these words instead of the pages of prayers in my hands. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.”

There it was, instantly. A physical transformation, a steady flow of peace. Thank you thank you thank you thank you — for this loving, brilliant man standing by my side; for the blossoming young man next to him; for the kind, curious boy at home nursing a cold while watching (inappropriate) cartoons. Thank you thank you thank you thank you. And for the challenges I have to face, Help me help me help me help me.

I do love December 31st, how we light up the darkest night sky with twinkly lights and candles and fireworks. And I love our Jewish New Year’s Eve in Autumn, when there’s still enough light to see the world by, to embrace it and thank it for its beauty, its blue sky above brown California mountain ridges, its temperate Pacific waves tumbling toward me as I gather up my burdens and transfer them to a handful of bread crumbs or shells and let them fly into the ocean.

For all of this, the gratitude and the challenges, the beauty of these people and this earth, the final prayer…Wow.

Sunset 1


2013: “Ancient History and Two Hours Ago”

Dear Rabbi Reuben,

This time of year always gets me. I don’t think of myself as religious, but there I am in services. Liking services. Needing services.

I sing along (mostly) with the Hebrew prayers, even though I don’t understand all of them, even though what I do understand I don’t always agree with. There is something in the familiarity of the rhythms and rhymes, the melodies and memories. Memories call me from when I was twelve, sitting in a row of other 12-year-old girls required to attend Shabbat services as part of our Bat Mitzvah year. I think about my son studying for his Bar Mitzvah now, and I feel peace and wonder knowing that he is learning these prayers not only for one Shabbat morning in February, but for the decades of Shabbats that will hopefully follow. He need not realize that these melodies and prayers will stay with him, guide him, fill him with love and hope whenever he may need it, years from now or next week.

I suppose these prayers were with me before I was twelve. They were there when Rabbi Winokur handed me my pre-school diploma, they were embedded in our three-year-old voices singing, “The animals, they came on, they came on in twosies twosies, elephants and kangaroosies roosies!”

The prayers have been there, if it’s not too time-travel-mystic of me, since my parents were dragged to “make an appearance” in their grandparents’ Orthodox shuls in Boyle Heights and Pico/Fairfax, where they heard unintelligible, unpenetrable Hebrew chanting. And so on.

There are prayers I don’t say. That don’t bring me peace. Like the one that proclaims “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” I don’t buy that literal God-writing business. But there I am in services anyway, because you add your spin, that these words remind us that all we have is today. That all the good we are going to do in the world should happen right now.

Next we arrive at a prayer listing the traits of God – compassion and forgiveness and kindness and mercy. This prayer sends my mind back two hours, to my younger son’s loss of composure this morning when asked (okay, ordered) to turn off the television because he had already watched a cartoon and it was time to play or get dressed. I think of the heat and anger that consumed him, the words that came out of his mouth directed at me, the stormy damage he caused to his room when sent there to cool down. For some reason today I stayed cool, too, let him settle into whatever books he uncovered in the process of forgetting what it was he was so angry about.

After a little while, I brought him his clothes for temple (he loves to dress up so this wasn’t a problem) and we spoke as though intemperate words had never been uttered. My forgiveness was my not asking for an apology, or bringing up the episode, which he knew was not his best moment. I dressed him and blessed him and his full of passion ways. Compassion and forgiveness and kindness and mercy.

I am grateful that my boys’ ears were in the presence of your words today – that attitude is everything. I hope they heard that everyone feels loss and disappointment, so they won’t feel so alone when it’s their turn. I am grateful for your emphasis on the value of showing up for people, and also what showing up means for participating in life. I am grateful that the sounds and words of our people’s prayers and melodies washed over them, as they sat bookended between my parents. I could turn and see them from a distance, they looked bigger, and my father’s hair grayer, than the images I hold of each of them in my mind. (My mother looked beautiful; that’s a constant.) I am grateful that these words and prayers and melodies were sinking into their depths in ways they may not consciously remember, but which they will no doubt access on some Rosh Hashanah many years from now, wherever their days may take them.

With love and appreciation for all these gifts,

Laura


2009: “Looking for Autumn at Low Tide”

We said goodbye to summer yesterday, again. The first one—the day before school started—didn’t take. My mind was still in pajamas. This goodbye was official. Equinox and all.

As a Sunday of lazing about moved toward evening, Christopher and I decided we’d go to the beach—where else to bid adieu to all things Summer? Our kids refused to come. Even Emmett was adamant: “I’d rather watch football than go to the beach!” he spat. Aaron concurred, disgusted by our proposal: “And I’d rather watch Elmo!”

Like angels conjured from our collective prayer, Grandparents materialized on our front porch, offering their time. I grabbed my flip flops and my man and we ran off.

The tide was low and we walked in wet sand, water gracing our toes. We saw the neighborhood Chabadniks praying the last of Rosh Hashanah, a towel-draped woman in a beach chair raising her martini glass, a toddler in soggy underwear rushing the ocean. All saying goodbye in their way. I stretched my arms wide toward the sunset. I resolved to shake the sand out of my brain and focus. Fall is here, time to hunker down.

It’s hard to tell it’s Autumn by looking out my window this morning. But if I pay attention: I see the sunshine casts its light on the blue tiled table from a longer angle. I feel the tickle in the back of my throat that warns the first cold is coming. I see dark purple leaves scattered on the grass.

I try to forget that this purple plum tree is dying. I know it is, but at least for the next few months its will have company.

 

 

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.

***

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.

 

 

 

Behind the scenes of Shelter Us

I thought I’d share some “behind the scenes” of how my debut novel, Shelter Us, evolved from first draft to final form. Today’s tidbit: Torah study.

What’s that? You heard me.

After I had completed the first draft and was working sloooowly on revising, I began attending Torah study with Rabbi Amy Bernstein, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, a progressive and all-around awesome place. (Her podcasts are here.)

Every week in Torah study we read and dissected ancient stories, and found connections to modern human foibles, habits, and yearnings — both personal and universal. What surprised me about Torah study, and what kept me coming back, was twofold: how relevant it was — how much I learned from it as a parent, a friend, a citizen. And how completely beautiful its purpose — to inspire humans toward becoming our best selves, all the while recognizing hey, we’re only human.

So nuts and bolts, how did this affect Shelter Us? Well, the first draft already had Sarah meeting and reaching out to Josie, a young homeless mother. (Obviously, my good Jewish Tikkun Olam training had already seeped into the plot.) But I went back and deepened Sarah’s motivation for doing that, deciding to make her late mother a Jewish convert, someone who often modeled the most important Jewish value: Remember we were strangers; welcome and take care of the stranger.

There more I think about it, the more Jewish values I find infused in Shelter Us, from its title, to the idea of passing values from one generation to the next, to the role of ritual, and even to the biggie: beliefs about God. And the more questions there are to explore.

  • How do you continue to learn and grow, be it philosophy, spirituality or history or something else?
  • Have you found yourself more or less drawn to religion or spirituality as you’ve gotten older?

Thanks for reading. Any questions you’d like answered? Feel free to ask in a comment, or contact me. More to come soon!

Words Meant to Be Shared

It may have been the glass of red wine with dinner. Or the 3-hour time change. Or my mother’s delicate snoring in the bed next to mine in our hotel, that kept me awake our first night in New York. Yet, as I pulled the pillow over my head, planning a Duane Reade earplugs run, I was grateful to be able to hear that sound, to sleep near my mother, still.

Our reason for being here: the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and its author networking conference, aka the “Pitchfest.” In those wakeful midnight hours, I ran over and over my two-minute pitch.

You get two minutes. Two minutes to summarize seven years of writing, revising, abandoning, and returning to a manuscript that represents your most personal ideas and emotions. You sit in a filled-to-capacity sanctuary (thinking everyone here wrote a book, too??), waiting for your turn to tell the savvy book festival planners from around the country why they must choose your book for their communities. And you pinch yourself because you’re one of the authors, and everyone in this room loves books as much as you do.

When it was my turn, I left my written notes on my chair, I looked out at the audience, remembered that they wanted me to nail it, and took a breath. I talked to them like I was talking to my mom, telling them about my labor of love. And instead of two minutes it happened during a single encapsulated, time-not-passing, bubble of a moment.

Here’s what I said:

One of the most beautiful commandments in our tradition is to take care of the stranger – the vulnerable and powerless. This always resonated with me, but even more so after I became a mom. I began to see everyone – even a homeless person on the sidewalk – as someone’s child. But like many people, I struggle with wanting to help and not knowing how.

In my novel Shelter Us, Sarah, a mother of two who is grieving the death of an infant, sees a young homeless mother and child, and she can’t stop thinking about them. Remembering her late mother’s many examples of caring for “the stranger,” moves her to reach beyond her comfort zone and try to help them.

Writing about Sarah’s journey allowed me to explore the difficult question of how we respond to the need we see every day. But even more, it was my way of wrestling with a mother’s universal fear that the worst could happen to her child. Sarah, who suffered that loss, sings a Hashkivenu prayer to her children at bedtime, asking for God’s sheltering arms to keep them safe. The song she sings, “Shelter Us,” I first heard at Jewish summer camp, and its primal yearning has stayed with me all these years.

Shelter Us raises some wonderful questions to explore together:

Who are today’s strangers and what are our responsibilities to them as Jews? 

Can helping others heal our own wounds? 

What are the values we want to pass to our children, and how do we communicate them? 

In what ways did Torah study impact my thinking and writing? 

How do we move beyond our fears, to savor the small, beautiful moments of parenthood that are all too fleeting?

And then it was the next author’s turn.

As soon as I sat down I was thinking of what I’d wished I’d said: This book has great blurbs by brilliant bestselling authors! Library Journal recommends it for book clubs! You’re gonna love it! You’re absolutely gonna love it!

But, like life, there are no do-overs. There are words you will wish you didn’t leave unsaid.

My mom is sitting behind me as I write these words to you, and she’s about to leave to spend a day in the city with cousins, while I go do more book stuff. “Mom,” I call out before she leaves. “I have to tell you something!” She stops, a  look of concern floats across her face. And I try to tell her what she means to me.

 

 

An Exquisite Hunger for Action

I went to City Hall this morning to support the LAWomen15 — women fasting to advocate for a $15 minimum wage. The organizers had told me I could fast today “in solidarity” with them. My husband would be skipping breakfast for a scheduled blood test, so I could be in solidarity with him, too. I thought I’d do it.

I skipped my usual coffee and cereal while the kids got ready for school. I absentmindedly popped a raspberry into my mouth as I made their lunches. It’s easy to forget to fast when food is abundant.

As I was about to leave for the trip downtown, something caught my eye: On the kitchen counter, half an apple glistened on wooden cutting board. It had been a small apple to begin with. I’d sliced it and put it in my son’s lunchbox, along with raspberries, a granola bar, and a slice of pizza from last night’s dinner.

I considered the apple. I thought about how I’d feel stuck on a crowded freeway, my stomach empty. I could imagine its crunchy, moist, sweetness refueling my brain and body.

I ate it.

Hunger is something so painful that if you do not have to experience it, if you have a choice, you are compelled to relieve your discomfort, to satisfy your body’s basic need.

Some of the women who are fasting — full-time employees of McDonald’s and Burger King and Walmart — routinely choose between food and rent. That is NOT okay.

Mary Carmen LAWomen15

LAWomen15 2

LAWomen15

The LAWomen15 had not eaten for 14 days. They are being heard. Mayor Garcetti came down from the tower to the street to speak to them, saying he supported their action. Some Council members did the same. Then the women, followed by clergy of all faith, solidarity fasters, and supporters like me walked into City Hall. The women addressed the Council, the people who can change their situation.

City Council

They spoke eloquently. They were received with respect. They had sacrificed deeply, putting their bodies in jeopardy, to tell these sympathetic people, who had eaten breakfast and looked forward to lunch, that they needed to act with haste.

I followed them out of Council chambers, and left City Hall.

I walked two blocks, unapologetically knowing that food was my destination. I ordered a three dollar coffee, and felt both awe and guilt that I spent that much on empty calories that disappeared from the cup in two minutes. As I prepared to eat my gourmet sandwich, an uncommon, authentic sensation rolled through me: This called for a blessing. I took a deep breath, and exhaled a prayer of immense gratitude for the food I was about to eat.

Complacency is companion to plenty. I suffer from it as much as anyone, as much as the elected officials accustomed to studies, commissions, and five-year plans. Let these valiant women’s fast create an exquisite hunger for action.

Introducing Spring, and Maria

The bees are having an orgy with our bottle brush tree.

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It’s blooming like mad. Needle thin magenta red flowers are exploding all over the place.

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They land in my hair as I trim its branches to unblock the backyard gate – crucial for quick bike getaways and the kids’ friends direct access to the trampoline. I prune its branches until I’m covered in sweat and tiny red needles, or until the bees get too angry. I’ve never liked this tree.

Maria sees the tree differently. Just yesterday she pointed with reverence to dozens of buds about to bloom.

Allow me to introduce Maria.

Maria is from Guatemala, and has been part of our family since January. She is the older sister my sons never knew they were missing, whom they embraced faster than I’d ever imagined possible. She has a family back home — younger brothers, older sisters, mom and dad. But it is not safe to be a teenage girl there. That’s enough said about that.

Maria helps me see many things differently, not just the loathsome bottlebrush tree. Through her eyes I see abundant, under-appreciated privileges: walking alone at night in our neighborhood; living near a public high school so desirable that kids take a bus two hours to attend it; having books in our house; enjoying freedom from fear.

It is easy not to notice the bounty you have when everyone around you has the same, and expects it. When everyone wants more. 

It’s easy to forget to appreciate the red flowers.

The blooming tree announces spring’s arrival, and the arrival of Passover, with exclamation points.

Maria helps me see Passover with new eyes, too. This year when my family gathers for a Seder, when we read our Haggadah (including MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, and a song about Pharaoh sung to the tune of the Brady Bunch), one fundamental Jewish mandate will rise above all else: that we were once the stranger, and that we have a sacred duty to welcome the stranger now.

The star of the Passover story is Moses, of course, leading those Hebrew slaves out of oppression. This year I will be thinking a lot about Moses’ mother, who placed her helpless infant in a basket and floated him down the Nile to save his life. I think of the courage it took to spare him. Of the heartbreak. I think of Maria’s parents, who had to do the same. And I think about the woman downriver, who happened to be at the river’s edge at the right moment. Who plucked the child out, who acted on instinct to save him.

My grandmother reminded me recently that her mother, Mary, was also sent away to save her, from Vilna, Lithuania, to America’s saving arms. Like my great-grandmother, our Maria was an “unaccompanied minor” seeking the simple promise of ordinary: to live and study and work in peace. My great-grandmother ended up living a blessed life. My heart is filled with hope that Maria will have a measure of the same. And it echoes with sorrow for their selfless mothers and fathers.

As for the red flowers, I think I’ll let them grow.

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Afterlife, Ashes…and a Kickline for Al Diamond

Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.

If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.

Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?

But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.

In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.

And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.

Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”

Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”

“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.

“Al Diamond.”

“This one’s for Al,” she said.

The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.

I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.