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.

How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,

Laura

News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I’m thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.
Lucky!!

 

I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.

Laura

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.

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Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.

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My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”

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We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.

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On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.

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Selfies in Caesarea.


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Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerusalem
Welcome to Jerusalem

 

Boogieing on the Galilee
Boogieing on the Galilee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.

 

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My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.

Throwback Thursday: My Kid’s Words Take Me Way Back, Deep

If you’ve been on Facebook at some point in your life, you’ve seen people calling out “Throwback Thursday” and then sharing some cool photo they dug up. 

See, this one just came up while I was writing!
See, this one just came up while I was writing!

It’s odd how things catch on. Like why not Throwup Thursday, why isn’t that a thing? Why not dust off some college era shots of you and your pals tossing back tequila shots and the aftermath.

Well, I guess we know why not. You have to do more than alliterate. You have to have intrinsic value. And there’s something valuable, something that moves us when we see our loved ones as they were in times gone by. The retro shot of them their underwear on a slip ‘n’ slide, or riding a bike sans helmet, or cuddling a baby. It’s a sort of mirror. It’s nostalgia porn. We’re addicted.

Since I’m about more about words than images, I enter the throwback craze with a quote from my kid that I wrote down two years ago, age 7. I found it by accident just now. I never would have remembered it, my memory becoming increasingly unsticky and riddled with holes. I tell you, it’s worth writing down the things they say, even if like me you have no system for finding or saving them. Because, like me, you may happen upon one while looking through worn yellow legal pads for something else that you can’t find but need right away, and you will be taken to another place, by something you thought noteworthy enough at the time to pause, find a pen, and record.

“I believe in two things that are probably impossible…”

That caught my attention. That must have been when I grabbed for the pen.

“…The Loch Ness monster, and when I die I’ll come back in other lives.”

 

(Hope ol' Lochy isn't in here!)
(Hope ol’ Lochy isn’t in here!)

 

To believe in something that you simultaneously deem to be “probably impossible.” Is that the definition of faith? I said I believed in them both, too. No one’s proved us wrong yet.