Dangerous

“I feel most alive when I’m doing something dangerous.” Powerful words, if somewhat concerning when spoken by your then-10-year-old. His middle name is Sage for a reason — no less than Eleanor Roosevelt counseled, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face….You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I am re-reading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s memoir, Hope Will Find You, a decade after first reading it. In her quest “to learn how to live with less fear,” she attends a Buddhist meditation class, in which the leader drops this doozy: “‘Today we’re going to learn the death meditation.’ [I]t was important to see that we could die at any moment.” The teacher proceeds to list many ways they might die that very day — aneurism, car crash, choking on their post-meditation lunch.

This caused her initial panic, but then Rabbi Levy writes, “Embracing a death sentence was extraordinarily liberating. Small-level fears were beginning to seem inconsequential and irrelevant. I felt free to take risks and to speak my mind. I was more open to change and to trying new things.” Just like my son had known.

“I am not afraid” — words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, Adonai Li — lodged in my head this week. I found myself reverting to an old way to process feelings: I wrote a poem. I am no poet (just ask my cringe-y teenage journal). And I had no intention of sharing it with anyone, let alone everyone. But as Rabbi Levy spoke to me from pages written years ago: Liberate yourself. Take risks. Try new things. A poem may not be the kind of danger my son had in mind those years ago, but going beyond one’s comfort zone can take many shapes. This week, maybe find a way to exceed one of yours?

I am not afraid
of death
I know people who live there

To be clear
(Whomever may be listening)
I am in no rush

Whenever I get there
(early or late)
The party is in full swing
The sounds of a shindig
Favorite songs and longed-for voices
Laughing!

The unmistakable hush
as the guests pause to look
who is arriving
The rush to embrace
The loving reunion.

More Pandemic Life, and Light, One Year Later

Last Passover I thought the Jews might break the internet. I did not yet know that this “Zoom” thing could handle our bandwidth. Miraculously, it could and did. Some fifty relatives waved at each other from our own homes, believing surely we would be together this year.

That was not to pass. Rather than resume our pre-pandemic mass gathering, our familial organism divided into smaller cells spread across counties and states. Even so, I felt a real liberation from the narrow places of last year: for the first time in a year I was sitting with my parents inside their house, eating at their dining room table, maskless, and vaccinated. We chose to open a laptop to Zoom as our rabbi led a Seder from her home and we joined a congregational family of hundreds. She closed the Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem,” and we affirmed, “next year in Tarzana.” Even this felt like a step forward.

More signs of light? For my 2020 birthday, one month into the shutdown, my friend left a very special gift on my porch, rang the doorbell, then hightailed it to the safety of her car.

My birthday month has come around again, and last night we walked to this friend’s house, rang her doorbell and did not back up but stayed on her welcome mat. Five of us went up to the roof in time to see the sunset, and toast how far we have come; the world isn’t talking about where to source toilet paper, but vaccines! Earlier in the day, I had told my son that I sensed a light coming — though I hedged, acknowledging that my feelings could change in a day or an hour. Last night on that roof, with darkness settling over us, Christopher summarized the sentiment of the moment, saying, “I don’t know what comes next.”

We have never known what comes next. The last year has taught us that. I hold at bay the knowledge that anything could happen still, a fourth wave might crash over us and wipe out plans for summer or even fall. And it might not. I focus on the light streaming through my window right this moment, as real as anything.

Balance

The earth proceeded through the vernal equinox this weekend — the moment when day and night, light and dark, are balanced. Even in southern California, it is definitively spring. The air is cool, the light is new. There is an undeniable feeling of rebirth. We are coming out of a year-long winter, a drawn-out season of anxiety. We are collectively rediscovering our balance.

I learned this weekend that yogis mark the vernal equinox by practicing 108 sun salutations. 108!

Why 108? Well, according to The Wellness Universe blog, the number 108 is auspicious in many religions and wisdom traditions: there are 108 names of Buddha, beads on a Catholic rosary, and 108 is a multiple of “chai” – the Hebrew word meaning both 18 and “life.”

I heard about this equinox practice during a “Zoom Shabbat.” Our wonderful Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who had been put through this practice earlier in the day by our mutual yoga teacher Nicole Sherman, noted an essential lesson she learned from her ordeal of 108 sun salutes: Life gives you hard things; you do them. You don’t have to tell yourself a whole big story about them. You get through them, moment by moment.

Listening to meaning she drew from the experience, I wondered, Could I do 108 sun salutations? What would it feel like? What might I learn? I resolved to try it.

During the 90 minutes it took me to get through them (twice as long, I might add, as our yoga teacher reportedly took), I jotted down the lessons that popped up for me. I wrote them down because I sensed that they would apply as much to life, and writing, as to yoga:

  1. No matter how well you think you can multitask, you cannot. (Don’t think you can keep count in your head.)
  2. Simple tools can help manage your task. (In this case, tally marks saved me).
  3. Take breaks if you need them.
  4. A change of venue can recharge you.
  5. Slow down; pay attention.
  6. Take lots of deep breaths.
  7. Everything is better when you can be present in the moment.
  8. You have the power to re-value something bad into something good (e.g. “I am so freaking tired I can’t keep going” can become “I am getting stronger.” Or, “this draft sucks” can become “I am one draft closer to getting it right.”)
  9. Don’t panic if you get lightheaded.
  10. Notice where things gets bumpy, and try something different next time it happens (and there will be a next time).
  11. Celebrate milestones on your way to a larger goal.
  12. Find new things in the familiar. (When days feel the same, small tweaks can make them unique.)
  13. Get lost in flow.
  14. Find strength in community — other people are on this path with you.
  15. As you near the end, each moment feels more precious.
  16. Drink plenty of water.
  17. Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
  18. Nothing, I mean nothing, beats a hot bath after a hard day.

Wishing you a week of balance and strength for whatever tasks you face.


Book Recommendation!

To bring this piece full circle, I must recommend Claire Dederer’s bestselling memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which I recently discovered while taking Claire’s online memoir class offered by Hedgebrook. (Hedgebrook offers many excellent online course, which you should check out here.)

Praise for Poser:

“Poser is a powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir about one woman’s open-hearted reckoning with her demons.”–Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

“Why did Claire Dederer take up yoga? Short answer: for the same reasons that Elizabeth Gilbert changed her life in Eat, Pray, Love and to much the same funny, charming, self-deprecating, stealthily inspirational and (quite possibly) best-selling effect.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Funny, well-observed, and ultimately inspiring.”–People (four stars)

“Let me be honest about something: I love yoga, I live for yoga and yoga has changed my life forever — but it is very difficult to find books about yoga that aren’t incredibly annoying. I’m sorry to say it, but yoga sometimes makes people talk like jerks. Thank goodness, then for Claire Dederer, who has written the book we all need: the long-awaited funny, smart, clear-headed, thoughtful, truthful and inspiring yoga memoir. To simplify my praise: I absolutely loved this book.”–Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

Sweetbitter

My word of the week is sweetbitter*– not really a word, but it should be (like these non-words and these). More apt than bittersweet, “sweetbitter” places the joyful before the sorrow.

We are in Pennsylvania for a yartzheit, a year since my father-in-law died. How can it be a year already since the world stopped, a harbinger of the whole world stopping as if in sympathy? Come Wednesday, we will go to the cemetery and face head-on the abject missing of someone so loved, so central. Come Wednesday, there will be the output of tears, reckoning with what was lost.

But before that there is snow (a thrilling gift to California boys who have been watching the weather reports and praying for this for weeks). There are borrowed sleds and a hill. There are snowballs and dogs romping. There is the ridiculous cake Aunt Jessica created — sweet with some bitter chocolate — to celebrate two January birthdays weeks gone by, because life is for celebrating even belatedly.

We are here, we are together, and we are missing. An exquisite yearning.

Death always takes us by surprise. We are never ready. We bury our heads in living. But would you want it any other way? To be asking each morning, will this be the day? We live and play and we mourn and grieve.

To be clear, it matters that a year has gone by. We have passed through every season, every birthday, every holiday without him. Each painful. “Just wait,” Jessica warned Christopher on her birthday, the first without their father. In the first days and weeks and months, the bitter won out often.

Now, out in the snow, Christopher wears his dad’s jacket and pelts the boys with fists of powder, and runs away from their response. His sister and mom see the familiar jacket and think his father is here.

In the living, in his grandsons, in the dogs galloping over to join them, he is.

Peter Heisen & Bumper, 2011

P.S. Full disclosure. I threw some snowballs, too.

* I am not the first to crave a word more sweet than bitter. “Sweetbitter” has been used by poets and podcasts and authors before me, to whom I offer thanks and credit.

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.

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

Save One Life, Save the World?

The world needs — has always needed — everyday heroes, every kind act and impulse each of us can offer.

So I am excited to be moderating a panel discussion calledSave One Life, Save the World? on October 23, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. as part of Palisades Reads, a new annual community literary event whose mission is to foster connection, spark conversation, and celebrate books for their ability to build empathy. The panel relates to the themes in my novel, Shelter Us (Indiebound, Amazon, library), the story of a grieving mother who finds solace helping a young homeless mother regain her stability. In the words of one reviewer, the novel asks readers to consider, “How far would you go to help a stranger in need?” 

What compels ordinary people to step outside their comfort zone to help others? The panelists are not superheroes, but regular folks whose hearts led them to take steps, then more steps, leading to the founding of agencies that help homeless youth, that innovate how to connect homeless individuals to services, and that provide counsel and community to grieving families.

These everyday heroes are living proof of Alicia Keys‘ words: “What people often assume is that in order to make change a reality, you have to have some kind of superhuman quality and power inside of you. You don’t have to be a politician, or a scholar or a singer or a celebrity to recognize a problem and work towards fixing it by empowering others around you to take up the fight. You have to be you and that makes it all the more valiant.

To honor everyday heroes, in a countdown to the panel I will be sharing stories about people who are making the world better with small and large acts of kindness. I hope their stories will send ripples of inspiration, to tell anyone who wonders if they can make a difference: Yes, you can. And yes, you must, for no one else can bring forth your unique gifts. It’s all hands on deck.

To start, today I’m sharing this op-ed and this AirTalk interview with author/actress Annabelle Gurwitch, in which she describes her experience welcoming a homeless couple into her home through a pilot project with Safe Place for Youth (one of the participants in the Palisades Reads panel Oct 23, 6:30 p.m.) 

Let’s send ripples of kindness out into the world. Please share this post, and leave a comment about who inspires you, or how you help others. Our world need every single small act of big-heartedness it can get.

And please join me if you can for an inspiring, motivating, heart-lifting evening:

“Save One Life, Save the World” Panel, October 23, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.

Pacific Palisades Branch Library, 861 Alma Real Drive, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272

With love,

Laura

#saveonelifesavetheworld  #everydayheroes

#kindnessmatters

 

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.

 

 

From Survivor to Wonder Woman in 8 Days.

Eight days ago, over Memorial Day weekend, we took our kids to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Most years we fritter away these school vacation days doing nothing special, but this year I was The Mom I Keep Meaning to Be, at least for a day. The visit matched the meaning of the holiday — Remembering.

We took the one hour tour, then listened to a survivor speak. His testimony — death marches, concentration camps, losing his mother and grandparents, but surviving, and even finding his brother and father — was harrowing, yet somehow also uplifting. Here he was telling us about the greatest evil and cruelty the world has known, but also telling us how he later met his wives (all 3 of them), and introducing his daughter and two grandsons in the audience. He held the rapt attention of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational audience for over an hour, and we would have stayed as long as he could speak.

A tough visit like that must be balanced with sweets and joy, so we also ate lunch at L.A.’s famous Dupar’s restaurant. That’s how we do. We remember the holy hell — because we have to — and then we take a big bite out of life. Because we’re still here.

Eight days later, we watched Wonder Woman. Did you know that the original comic strip Wonder Woman’s first villains were the Nazis? (I read that here.) As cool as it was to see powerful women warriors on the big screen (it brought the L.A. Times’ Lorraine Ali and others to tears), what moved me more was that the actress embodying the strongest, fiercest, most unstoppable (and, yeah, super gorgeous) woman in the universe…is a Jew. It was like the entire Jewish population was saying in unison, “How you like us now, Hitler? We are STILL FREAKIN‘ HERE!”

WonderWoman

Not only that (and perhaps I’m taking this Jewish woman thing too far, but indulge me), but Wonder Woman’s entire existence is for tikkun olam, healing the world, the most central Jewish value of all, a value generations of Jewish women and men have striven to achieve and pass down to the next generation. The can be no greater healing of the world than peace.

I am aware as I write this that fifty years ago today, the 19-year-old state of Israel, a refuge for Europe’s remaining Jews, faced “an ominous build-up of Arab forces along its borders” (History.com), and shut it down. I am aware as I write this that Israel continues to struggle to find a lasting peace (with multiple points of view even among Jews as to how to accomplish that). And I am aware as I write this that anti-Semitism, hidden and blatant, continues to flourish all over the world.

I don’t expect a movie to heal the world. It’s an amusement, an entertainment. But, for me, this movie was something more. In its small way, our Jewish Wonder Woman resounded with the message carried over from our museum outing one week before: We’re still here.


(Much has been written about the Jewish Wonder Woman, including this piece about the first Jewish woman illustrator of the Wonder Woman comic, this in Slate, and of course this Tweet from Scandal’s Josh Malina: “FU, bds.”

JoshMalina Tweet