The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying. … Continue reading
Going on a safari was on my mother-in-law Joyce’s bucket list, not mine. Still, we gratefully accepted the invitation to accompany her. (We’re givers, I know.)
For a year we received e-mails from Joyce admonishing us what to do to prepare for the trip to Tanzania (not the least of which was practicing taking a shower with our mouths closed). Care packages of DEET and rain ponchos arrived at our house. I stored them in a drawer and hoped I wouldn’t forget where I’d put them many months later when it came time to pack.
The safari loomed in the future for so long. Now we have been and returned. It is over in time, but not gone.
When you don’t know what to expect in an experience, you allow room for surprises. Sure, I expected that I would enjoy seeing a place on our planet unique in its preservation of land and animals. I expected that I would ooh and aah over elephants and giraffes and lions and baboons. I did not expect, however, that the pace of our journey, slow and in the moment, would linger quite so long when I returned to “real life.” Call it the Hakuna Matata Effect; it lasts.
I’m not speaking of the red dust that still clings to my suitcase. I’m speaking of the less tangible residue, like the first Swahili words we learned as we rushed to get everyone and six suitcases into a jeep on our way to the Arusha airstrip for a propeller flight to the Serengeti. “Pole pole,” he said (poh-lay poh-lay). “Slowly, slowly.” We’ll get there. Just breathe. It takes the same amount of time to move calmly as it does to feel rushed and to rush others.
I’m speaking of the melodious sound of Swahili, embodied in this ear worm of a song taught to us by our very patient driver/guide Ellison (and which essentially translates to, “What’s up, dude? Everything’s cool; no worries in Tanzania.”):
I’m speaking of my continued longing for the sound of only birds and animals and wind, instead of the sounds that fill my habitat: houses striving for perfection with incessant remodels; hammers and power saws; lawnmowers and leaf blowers; fire engine sirens; airplanes droning; electronic devices buzzing and dinging.
Mostly, I’m speaking of the perspective gained by traveling outside of my culture, which all-too-quickly fades upon reentry. For a week I was not constantly connected to cable “news.” For a week I watched animals who knew nothing of North Korea or Russia or the United States, who cared nothing about SAT Prep classes or Bar Mitzvah caterers or glitchy WiFi at the office. I am not saying I wish I were Maasai, or that I would like my world to constrict to hunting and gathering. I am saying I needed the reminder that some of my concerns are cuckoo creations of my cultural bubble. They have no intrinsic universal value, and I can choose which to ascribe to, and which to let go.
I cling to the residue of Tanzania. For a week, I was with my family, away from the push/pulls that animate our lives at home. For a week we lived a starkly different pace — on the go at 6 am, eating breakfast and lunch in the quiet of the bush, in bed at dark, falling asleep to those sounds of nature. For a week our eyes set upon the unfamiliar beauty of flat-topped acacias and rocky outcroppings that shelter lion cubs. And for a week we spent 8-10 hours bumping around in a jeep looking for glimpses of animal action, and peeing outside when Ellison decided the threat of lion or leopard attack was low. Joyce said it was the trip of a lifetime, and that she will never do it again.
Me? I’m ready to plan my return.
P.S. Bonus video: Watch an elephant multi-task, and listen to our amazed commentary. And finally, the words to “Jambo buana” song, written out for us by Ellison.
My dear boys,
May you continue to have the courage to step into the beautiful unknown, with a sense of humor, with a sense of adventure, and with your brother close by your side.
May you reach out for help when you need it, and may you generously share your many, many blessings with a world that needs what you have to offer.
I love you,
To my best friends’ children, my nieces (and my own kids), this is for you.
I cherish your moms. I treasure their intellect, humor, and their camaraderie. They challenge me, teach me, inspire me, and lift me up when I’m down. Together we navigate motherhood and womanhood in the 21st Century.
To my law school friends’ children in particular, you may know that during the Presidential debates, and again last night, our group texts were flowing. Yes, we stay connected through the same devices we are always bugging you to turn off.
Ours was the first class at Berkeley Law with a majority of women, and at our graduation, four years into Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as First Lady – the first FLOTUS who was a lawyer and activist in her own right, and the highest ranking female role model we had – we considered giving our middle names as “Rodham” to be read aloud in succession by the Dean (a woman, who wrote the book on Sex Discrimination) as we crossed the graduation stage. It was a silly/serious idea to honor someone we admired. But we chose instead to take our first professional steps under our own names.
We used to rely on each other to study for finals or blow off steam. We still rely on each other for guidance, including how to parent you. It’s no surprise that the values we have striven to raise you with are the same values that were the heart of Hillary’s campaign: to reach for your dreams; to respect all people; to work hard and be conscientious; and most importantly, to be big-hearted, welcoming and kind. You kids paid attention to this election in your own ways – watching the debates, debating the issues with others, volunteering. We are proud of you for all of your accomplishments, and for becoming your authentic and unique selves.
There were tears last night — moms, sons and daughters alike. This morning we are mourning. But I want you to know that there will be light again.
This morning Hillary Clinton acknowledged that it hurts to lose this election, but she reminded us that fighting for what’s right is always worth it. She told “all the little girls to never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue and deserve your own dreams.” That message is just as important for you boys to understand: Never forget that you have equal partners in this job of repairing the world. You cannot do it alone, nor do we expect you to. One more thing, don’t let any bully anywhere – including that bully called self-doubt – tell you you’re not good enough. Do not believe for a second that your brain, your ideas, your hands aren’t as powerful as anyone else’s. What has always been true about bullies remains true; they speak from their own wounds, and must be stood up to, especially by caring bystanders.
Amidst the crushing disappointment this morning, there were rays of sunshine. Natalie ran for Student Body President, and won.
Thank you for putting yourself out there, for believing in your capability, and for giving me something to cheer this morning! Thank you also to Lilia, you fierce five-year-old, for getting right back up again with your suggestion of making protest signs to show to Donald Trump. Thank you to Sophia for making phone calls into swing states to get out the vote. You reached people. Stay engaged.
To all of you: Thank you for bringing out the best in us, your moms. For inspiring us to work hard to make the world a place we want to raise you. For picking up the baton of progressive activism and running with it. Do not lose heart. Yes, this is a tough day. But know there are more than 52 million Americans who share your disappointment, and your hopes. You are good, kind, smart people, raised by good, kind, smart parents, and I have faith in you. You rock.
P.S. Thanks for letting me borrow your moms for an evening or weekend every now and then. It’s REALLY important.
I am sitting in the “Bistro” area at my grandmother’s assisted living home this morning. Picture a grand but casual hotel, a deluxe joint I have told her is like an ideal college dorm, with exercise classes, lectures, parties and movies, staffed by the type of kind, warm folks you’d want caring for your grandmother.
“Really? A college dorm?” she responds with a smile, this woman who hopped a bus to Hollywood at 18 and never attended college.
The Bistro is laid out with tables set for four, with a small kitchen offering light breakfast of fruit, toast, juice and coffee. Some residents are watching CNN. It is 9:00 a.m., and with nine hours to go before “tip-off” for tonight’s Presidential Debate, the pundits are already discussing the potential pitfalls and highlights of tonight’s clash. I am on edge. I turn away. So much rides on this.
The Bistro is awakening with activity, as men and women who have fought in wars, raised children, created industries (and ask for no credit), arrive for breakfast and tune into the debate coverage.
My grandmother sits next to me, a vision. Her auburn hair is set off perfectly by her light green jacket and pants, and her sharp wit reminds you that you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the girl.
Two of her favorite friends, Addie and Arlene, join us for breakfast and conversation. Turns out the four of us have a lot in common. We talk about our children, our increasing memory loss, and our strong feelings about the election.
I pull out my laptop to show them a campaign website I had described to my grandmother last night, the one that lets Hillary Clinton volunteers reach out to voters across the country. It’s astounding how easy it is for people to get involved and to connect. I wanted to show my grandmother how far technology has come.
This is a milestone election for our country. It is also special for my family, but not only because we will have four generations voting for President for the first time. (That itself is cool, but mostly a testament to longevity). What’s truly noteworthy is that in this election, my grandmother, born before women could vote, will cast her first ever General Election Presidential ballot for a woman, while her great-granddaughter will cast her first General Election Presidential vote ever, and it will be for a woman. (And it’s not just “a woman.” It’s this indefatigable, qualified, hard-working, smart, tough, compassionate, imperfect-as-humans-are, brilliant, problem-solving, dedicated-to-service woman.)
It shouldn’t have taken so long for my grandmother to get here. But here we finally are, in a world in which my nieces and my sons, and their cousins and friends, can believe that anyone — any-qualified-one — man or woman, can and should follow their dreams, unlimited by the invisible weighty burden that “no one has ever done that before.”
Our table’s conversation turns to voter registration. One woman isn’t sure if she is registered here, or in her home state of Michigan. We do a quick Google search (after she asks me to “Google her”), and get her registered. Two ladies at an adjacent table come over to confirm they are registered;, and they are. My grandmother calls over the activities director and tells him we have to set up another voter registration day. He agrees. She gets things done.
I’ve sat here an hour longer than I expected, and if I could I would stay all day. The activities are just getting started. And with every minute, I’m feeling less anxious about our country’s future.
When I tell someone we have two new puppies, the reaction goes, “Puppies are so cute! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies!” Followed immediately by, “It’s like having babies.”
I grant that there are many similarities. They are crazy cute. I am more housebound than I would like to be. And they pee in inappropriate places. But that’s where the similarities end for me. I feed them from a bag not my body, baby wipes are only for their ears, and I can leave them in a crate in a pinch.
Last week, my 15-year-old echoed the “puppies are like babies” sentiment, saying that raising puppies will help prepare him for being a father. (Awww…!) There’s some truth there: caring for puppies exercises your patience, love, and forgiveness. It requires you to do or say the same thing over and over and over before they “get” it. And at setbacks and joys alike, you must remind yourself “this too shall pass.”
One moment with the puppies recently reminded me of a feeling I had in my early days with an infant. About 15 and a half years ago, in the wee dark hours of the night I sat in a rocker with my baby in my lap for a middle-of-the-night feeding. He was asleep in my arms, finished with his milk, and the crib loomed a mere four feet away from us. I had never yet managed to get this love out of my arms and into his crib without him waking and crying (I would later discover co-sleeping, Praise Be). Hoping this would be the first time, that I would soon return my groggy self to my own bed, I slowly rose, glided soundlessly across the room, leaned my body over the crib with his body against mine until the mattress accepted his weight, I ever sooooooo slooooowly stood up. I waited. YES! I had done it! He was still sleeping! I was ebullient! I felt like I’d scaled a mountain! Cured cancer! Could do anything!
My comparable puppies moment: that same son and I gave them a bath.
The puppies had been playing in the yard after the sprinklers had been on, digging a hole in wet soil. They were filthy. White paws were dark brown. We couldn’t let them in the house. A bath was mandatory.
We had never done this before. There was no special puppy tub, and the kitchen sink seemed too big for these guys. How would we accomplish this? Where to begin? We retrieved a towel, a bucket, and put two inches of warm water and soap in it. Good enough start. My son stood ready with the towel while I put the first dog in. With a little rubbing, the dirt came off. I handed the surprised, wet pup to the waiting, towel-holding arms of my son, and repeated. These two baths lasted less than 30 seconds, and we had two clean, dry puppies!
We were so inordinately proud of ourselves we high ten‘ed.
That was no small thing. My son is a great kid, wonderful to be around. But I’m the mom, the one who asks about homework and reminds about appointments, so sometimes it feels like we are moving in opposite directions, like friction is our default. Joining forces to give the puppies their first bath, exulting together in that new-parent feeling of accomplishment, reminding ourselves of our bond, was a priceless moment that made every other little puppy mess well worth it.
A lot like having a baby.
We had planned a quiet anniversary celebration, since the school board transformed what used to be a summer night into a school night a few years ago.
Our first anniversary was a trip with friends to Hawaii.
Our third was a walk to a park with our baby in a stroller.
Our fourth through seventeenth…well, who can recall the details? A few dinners, a few nights with sick children, a few vacations, a search through my mind’s records would likely reveal.
But our eighteenth anniversary will be remembered as the day we got our first puppies. Two.
Officially I have lost my mind.
After years of saying no, I felt ready for a dog. A single dog. We discussed this in May, decided to wait until the end of summer, when travels were done. And then today our friend brought over four puppies for us to choose from.
The cuteness was the problem. How to choose? Add to that so many voices– the friend giving them away, my mother-in-law, my sons, my nieces, even my husband — insisting that a single dog would be lonely without a companion.
I tried using the rational mind: “Most people we know with dogs have just one dog.” And “My mental health is more important than the dog’s mental health.” But the rational mind does not always win. Because, remember, the cuteness.
When it was time for the woman with the puppies to go, pressure was applied. But it didn’t take that much. And now we have two dogs.
And so an 18th anniversary becomes trip to the pet store for supplies. Becomes friends coming over to see the new puppies. Becomes nieces coming back and back again to cradle the pups. Becomes an uncle coming to visit. Becomes my sons trying out names and playing with them and cleaning up after them, and feeding them and getting pillows for their bedtime crate. Become my incredulous parents popping by to wish us a happy anniversary. Becomes an impromptu barbeque, and opening a bottle of champagne and Martinelli’s cider, which had been cooling in the refrigerator since last year.
If ever there is a time to uncork some celebration, this is it. This is 18 years of marriage. Kids. Family. Friends. Blessings abounding. And, now, dogs.
This is life: Full and overflowing, throwing some caution to the wind, saying yes.
The youngest is graduating from elementary school today. “I can’t believe it’s over; I spent more than half my life there” he says. He recognizes this as a Big Moment. “It’s the first big school transition, Mom.”
“What about from pre-school to kindergarten?”
“I didn’t even know what was happening. I thought we moved.”
It’s a big transition for me, too, even though almost nothing changes. Same work, same routines.
Still, our children’s transitions are our parenting milestones. They mark the passage of time, creeping closer to the day they grow up and out. I may be wrong, but my hunch is that my kids’ 0-18 years will be one of my life’s favorite phases.
I remember one early, major milestone: The Stroller Transition. From the first days of motherhood, this new accessory came with me everywhere. In the car trunk, on the sidewalk — the stroller was an extension of me. It carried my child, and I guided it. It connected us. And then, one day, my younger son stopped needing it.
One would think this would be liberating! No more schlepping equipment to and fro, up and down stairs! And in some ways it was liberating. But it also meant I would no longer catch my reflection in a store window, arms extended pushing my baby, but instead chasing to keep up with a growing child running ahead of me on his own. It took me longer than necessary to abandon the stroller, because it signaled that I was leaving part of my then-identity behind — Mom of Little Ones — even as it heralded the beginning of new, wonderful phases, being the mother to growing, curious, expressive kid/tween/teens.
So elementary school will be behind us by day’s end. Onward and upward. Middle and high school. College. Jobs (please God). And at each transition, each new milestone, I will remind myself to appreciate the unknown wonders that will come next, and allow myself a few tears for the parts of ourselves — both the parent and the child — left behind.
I come home from the market and see a purple foam sword lying on the just mowed lawn. It is a prop, along with an orange nerf gun, green ninja discus, and plastic machete, in a movie that four 11-year-old boys are making. I’m not sure what this flick is rated, but knowing one of the actor/writer/directors pretty well, I’d say it’s a safe bet that it’s PG for some violence. And, okay, mildly offensive language.
And something about this makes my soul smile.
A soul needs to smile.
I don’t know if it’s real or it’s only my perception, but it seems that our younger son and his friends have a certain innocence and openness to imaginary play that had already been abandoned by his older brother and his peers at the same age. The older boys were all sports all the time at 11 years old, which can be wonderful, but that passion can lend itself to trash talk and alpha male preening, in some instances. Give me sword-fighting and pratt falls any day.
Meanwhile on the lawn, the boy holding the camera calls action. Another boy aims a nerf bow and arrow, and releases its projectile toward a third boy. “You missed!” the target says. They fall down laughing.
It is May already. Next month these boys will graduate from elementary school, and two months later they will enter middle school. I know things will change. I’m not naive.
But I’m hopeful.
I pray for them to maintain enough innocence that they will still make movies, that nerf guns and green frisbees will still unleash their imaginations, that they will still play together unselfconsciously on a perfect spring afternoon, and that the only “drama” will be the storylines they create for the big screen.
I met Julia Dahl last May at the Jewish Book Council‘s author “pitch fest,” at which hundreds of authors have two minutes each to give book festival planners a glimpse into their synopsis, soul, and speaking capability. When Julia stepped up for her turn, I heard a thrilled murmur of anticipation among the attendees, and when she described her latest book, Run You Down (out today in paperback!), I understood why. Meet author and journalist, Julia Dahl.
What have you learned from parenting,or from your parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
Well, my son is barely 4 months old, so at this point I’m just trying to learn parenting itself! But from my parents I learned to love reading – my mom’s motto is “bring a book!” – and from my love of reading came the desire to write.
I also brought a lot of my parents into my mystery series, which features a protagonist whose mother is Jewish and father is Christian – just like my parents. Our family celebrated both religions and there was never a conflict. My mother and father respected each others’ faith and saw similarities, not differences. Once I grew up and left home, however, I saw people from both religions who seemed keen on emphasizing what divided the two, and I wanted to challenge that with my writing.
Where do you write? What do you love about it?
I tend to write in coffee shops and cafes and I rotate between about half a dozen places near my home in Brooklyn. I like a little noise and distraction and I like getting out of my apartment to work. It helps me feel like what I’m doing is important enough to get dressed for.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
“Talk about a dream, try to make it real.” – Bruce Springsteen
Who inspires you?
Right now, my son, Mick, inspires me. He was born a month early and wasn’t really ready to be out in the world, but he’s such an unbelievable trooper. He’s endured poking and prodding by doctors and two unprepared and overwhelmed parents, and he’s done it all with grace. I truly can’t wait to see who he becomes.
What charity or community service are you passionate about? Why?
Several years ago I went through training to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in the foster care system. I’ve mentored girls since I was in college and while some of the experiences have been tough, I’ve always felt that giving my time to young people who have been let down by the adults in their life is incredibly important. I haven’t been active in CASA for a couple years, but I hope to go back one day. In the meantime, I try to help teens where and when I can. A friend of mine – who left a strict Hasidic community and has managed to make a wonderful life for her children despite the death of her husband – asked me to help her son with his college essays and I loved doing that.
What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?
Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com. Her first novel, INVISIBLE CITY, was named one of the Boston Globe’s Best Books of 2014 and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, RUN YOU DOWN, is now out in paperback, and the third novel in her Rebekah Roberts series will be published in 2017. Julia was born and raised in Fresno, California and now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and son. Connect on Twitter (@juliadahl), Facebook (JuliaDahlAuthor) and www.juliadahl.com.