A Prayer for Purple Swords and Pratfalls

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.

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Watching dailies of their scene.

Writer’s Life: Julia Dahl

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.

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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?

The three best books I’ve read in the last few months are The Harder They Come by TC Boyle, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Purity by Jonathan Franzen.

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.


 

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Thank you, everyone. Thank you, dumb luck.

 

For my family, 2015 has been an “interesting” year. Before I head out to the market with Thanksgiving shopping list in hand, and before the days tumble over each other headlong into December, I wanted to sit and give thanks.

Thank you, readers. For inviting my words into your minds, letting them linger and simmer and blend with your own thoughts and experiences.

Thank you, writers. For brilliant words that inspire me to try harder, for sharing what you’ve learned on your path, and paying it forward.

Thank you, booksellers. For graciously welcoming me this year. For selling books. You do it because you love it, I know, but I thank you anyway.

Thank you, She Writes Press. For your innovation and vision. For your community.

Thank you, my old friends. For holding in your memories a “me” from before motherhood, the one who was funnier and less serious, so that I can sometimes catch a glimpse of that girl. Thank you for still being near.

Thank you, my “new” (e.g. of the past 15 years) friends. For lighting the way forward. For being an extended family to mine. For carpooling, for venting and listening to vents, for the occasional “Moms night out.”

Thank you, music.

Thank you, dancing.

Thank you, my sons. For teaching me how to parent you. (I don’t mean the little things, like “can we please have Grand Theft Auto.” Sorry, that’s a no, because I can’t handle “virtual” violence on top of the actual violence we know about in the world.) I mean, thank you for telling me things like, “We need more of you than you’ve been giving.” Thank you for giving me the chance to do better.

Thank you, my husband. For your creativity. For your incredible parenting. For your humor. For your positive outlook. For singing in the house.

Thank you, my whole family — my sister, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and especially my parents. For being present. For being cheerleaders. For being healthy and thriving, even though that’s mostly up to chance.

Thank you, good fortune.

Thank you, dumb luck.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

If words could build a force field around us, if a prayer of gratitude could keep us safe, healthy, fulfilled, and loved…

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

 

 

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.

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.

***

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.

 

 

 

The Keeper: An Anniversary Tale of Daring

Last week my husband and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. I have often thought that one of the keys to our marriage has been our similarities, such as when one spouse suggested dumping our house to be nomads for several months and the other said, “I was thinking THE SAME THING!” See what I mean? You gotta be on the same page for that whack.

But there is a fundamental way in which we are not the same: one of us meets challenges head-on, sticks with projects that are difficult, and stays calm and patient throughout. The other one is easy to quit, throw in the towel, and call in the experts to do it for her. (I knew you knew which was which.)

Case in point: The anniversary grill.

This year we decided to get a grill as an anniversary present to ourselves. Somehow that icon of backyard suburbia had eluded us lo these many years. So my husband sprung into action, went to Home Depot and came home with a grill. One minor problem. A pre-assembled grill would not fit in our small trunk, especially not with two boogie boards left in the trunk. Oops.

That’s the point when I would have said “never mind, maybe we’ll grill next summer,” or “let’s pay for delivery.” But Christopher, undaunted, bought an unassembled grill, opened the box (because even that box didn’t fit in the car), put all the separate pieces in the trunk, and brought it all home.

He got home, we unloaded the parts, and everything was still hunky-dory.

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Until he took a look at the instructions.

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I left him to it. He had opened this Pandora’s box of grill himself, and I trusted he would see it through. That’s how he rolls. A lesser person (me) would have dragged it all to the curb with a sign that said “Free.”

When he finished he asked, “Are you done sitting outside?”

“For now I am,” I answered. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to go try the grill and I don’t want to kill both of us.”

“Please don’t die,” I said.

Bravely he went outside. I stayed close to the phone ready to dial 911. All was well.

The next night we ate burgers and hot dogs surrounded by the family that had raised me to call experts for engineering feats (like lightbulb replacement), and we basked in his glow of utter competence. A keeper, this one.

Last Day on the Cape: So Many Towns and Bookstores, So Little Time

I think of myself as at least a tad bit worldly and well-traveled. So it came as a surprise to learn that Cape Cod is not one town. It is many towns, separated at the farthest ends by a two-hour drive.

This would have been good to know, as I’d allotted one day to visit Cape Cod’s indie bookstores. I’d have to forgo Wellfleet and Provincetown, and stretch just as far as Chatham and Brewster.

In my defense, this was an easy mistake to make. I’m an L.A. kid, descended from Eastern European Jews who did not build houses on the Cape in the 1900’s to pass down to me. (And those Cape Cod t-shirts do give off the “it’s-one-place” impression.) For me, summer meant day camps called Cali Camp and Tumbleweeds, and sleep away camps were in Malibu and Big Bear. Family weekends might be on Catalina or Coronado Island, not Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (yes, I’ve now learned the difference between them, too).

So we picked two stores, in Chatham and Brewster, and set out toward Chatham first. We missed a turn and ended up rerouted north. No problem! We’d go first to Brewster. Except we missed the road to Brewster, which forced us to backtrack through a town we hadn’t planned to visit, Orleans. Great news. Orleans has two bookstores.

Picture perfect Main Street Books in Orleans

Main Street Books in Orleans.

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Erin, Lady, and Matt at Booksmith Musicsmith in Orleans.

That was my favorite wrong turn of the trip. (The kids kept playing Go Fish in the minivan. Seen one indie bookstore, seen ’em all, I guess.)

Go Fish.

Go Fish.

We finally arrived at Brewster Bookstore. It was packed with customers, and its summer event schedule was packed, too, with 8 author events in July, and 7 in August, including Alice Hoffman.

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Books and your local lawyer all at one place.

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

After lunch, we headed to Chatham, whose Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore plans a drool-worthy summer of author literary events. Walking in, we were greeted by a vision fitting the final stop: on the front table of the store, Shelter Us shared space with Harper Lee and Anthony Doerr. Be still my heart.

This is a "pinch me" moment.

A “pinch me” moment at Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore in Chatham, Mass.

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Nina and store owner Joanne took a moment away from helping their many customers to pose with Shelter Us.

My family left while I signed books (please go get one from this wonderful store, or order online if you want a signed copy) — and I found them at the ice cream store discussing the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. (True story.)

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We had completed the task. After another hour’s ride, back in our rented house, the kids wanted nothing more than to be left alone to (and with) their own devices. But it was our last night on Cape Cod, the sun had come out, and we were going to get some fresh air or else. We had to scream to get them out the door, and it was worth it.

We swam (even me). We played soccer (even me). We felt the delicious breath of salt air on our skin. We looked over a landscape so different from our California beaches, vibrant green marshes growing out of the sand, inlets of saltwater stretching toward scrub pines. I felt the tiniest bit more familiar with this place called Cape Cod, knowing well I had only scratched its surface.

(And still knowing nothing about that other exotic, mysterious-to-me place known as: The Hamptons.)

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.

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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.

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.