Integrity

It’s in my arm! My second shot! You will forgive me if I write nothing today, and I will forgive you for thinking that maybe I should have written nothing today.

I wonder if I’m feeling vaccine-hazy, or just plain lazy. I wonder if my body aches because it is building immunity or because I’ve been lying in bed without moving for so long. I wonder if that slight wooziness that made me bend my head to my knees to keep from fainting earlier this morning were the antibodies at work or because we were talking about needles.

Needles! My childhood nemesis. After years of the pediatrician having to chase me around the exam room to vaccinate me, my mom made an appointment with a hypnotherapist to help me get over my fear. When I described to him that it was the idea of a sharp, metal, foreign object penetrating beneath my skin that gave me the willies, he gave that feeling a name: “Body integrity.” He said that I had an underlying sense that everything was where it was supposed to be and should not be messed with. My skin had a job to do — keep the inside stuff on the inside, and the outside stuff on the outside. Luckily, he succeeded in making me more comfortable with those intrusive jabs that would preserve the integrity of the rest of me.

Just getting some reassurance that it will be over quickly!

What of the other kinds of integrity? Maria Shriver, in her “Sunday Paper” newsletter yesterday, speaks of living from a place of integrity.

“Integrity is a deeply powerful concept….[B]eing intact: to be one thing whole and undivided. Who doesn’t want to live from that whole place? If you make choices and decisions from that place, you might find yourself on a path you never imagined. You might find yourself in a place you never dreamed of. If you keep making small choices from that place, it will lead you to dreams you never envisioned and places you never anticipated.”

Living with that kind of intention can bring us to push outside of the labels we choose to define ourselves. She writes, “I’ve come to learn that labels limit us. They keep our lives narrow and contained. It’s hard to be a multitude of things when the world seems to be demanding that you describe yourself as only one thing and then do just that one thing. I urge you to not allow that box to contain you, because if you lose that job, that role, or that label, you will find yourself not just wondering who you are, but what you are capable of being.”

I recognize myself in those words, and maybe you do, too? As hard as the journey to redefine yourself can be, the first job is realizing that you have endless possibilities.

As for me, my authentic choice right now is to fluff my pillows and watch something binge-worthy.

To your health, happiness, and wholeness.

The post-birthday, post-vaccination kit gift — Tylenol, extra band-aid, plain crackers, lozenges, and the extra mask and hand sanitizer, because you can’t be too careful!

Pandemic Life – One Year Later

A year and a week ago, when I wrote the post below, I thought the quarantine would last four weeks — six tops. All we needed was for everyone to stay home and the virus would extinguish itself. Easy peasy.

Maybe that naivete explains my irritating cheeriness — Kids home! Creativity! Bright spots! Where in this post is my terror at going to the market? Where is me spreading newspaper on the table before putting the grocery bags down, wiping down the milk cartons, soaping up my apples, and yelling at my family for not being as stressed out as me? I pinballed between every emotion — maybe these conscious efforts at gratitude were simply to quell the fear.

A year has passed. The world has suffered. We have collectively lost so much. Also, we have adapted. We have gained perspective, and down time, and (need I say it) some weight. But even as vaccines are being administered, my fear has grown like a callus; it will be a challenge to exfoliate. I may never completely excise it.

Now, for nostagia’s sake, I give you a slice of life from the beginning of the pandemic, with my annotations and apologies.


Hello friends,

I am one week into my hardcore understanding that “social distance” means do not breathe on anyone with whom I do not live. Maybe you’ve just arrived at that understanding right this second, or maybe you’ve been there longer. For me, it’s about a week, the same week since our freshman came home from college, and our 9th grader’s school closed its doors. My kids do miss their friends. But they love their grandparents, so they get the point and (mostly) do not complain about these extreme measures. To paraphrase my friend Monica, it’s only extreme if you’re willing to cull the elderly and the immune-compromised population.

Let’s move on to the bright spots.

1. Exercise with my kids. I credit my kids’ boredom for two milestone events: (1) Aaron said yes to a sunset walk with me yesterday, and (2) Emmett joined me for a 20 minute yoga video this morning. (We did Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube, it’s free. Adrienne is calming, not “precious,” and can start very slowly for beginners. Or try your local yoga studio and pay them so they can pay their teachers.)

  • 3/29/21 Annotation: That was before everyone else also did Yoga with Adrienne. It was also the last time Emmett joined me for yoga.

2. Create. Writing to you now. Working on my work in progress. Planning a virtual book club for our community for Palisades Reads 2020. And made a dance video for pre-schoolers.

  • 3/29/21 Annotation: I’m still working on my work in progress. And I’m still wondering if it will ever see the light of day. I repeat Mary Oliver’s poetry for comfort: “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

3. Connect. Zoomed coffee with friends. Zoomed with a gaggle of cousins.

Am hoping for a Zoom dance party, game night and, of course, a Zoom Seder. Will teach my mom to Zoom today. And I old-school called my cousin I haven’t seen in too long.

  • 3/29/21 Annotations: I tried Zoom dance and it made me cry, how it paled compared to the real thing.
  • I would have throttled you with my bare hands if you’d told me last year that we’d be celebrating a second Zoom Passover.
  • At least, as my cousin Greg pointed out, this year’s Zoom Seder didn’t require thirty minutes to get everyone logged in.

4. My Zen moment of the week: Watching my friend feed his baby on Facebook Live.

  • 3/29/21 Annotation: This video holds up without any commentary.

May you continue to be well, to love the ones you’re with, and to love the whole wide world. If there is anything we have been reminded of this year is that we are all connected, and that our choices have ripple effects around the world.

Lasts

I am running a few minutes late. Never mind that I live two blocks from the dance studio, or that others come from all over the city and are already parked and warming up. We (mostly) know one another only from this space, where we gather every Sunday to move and sweat and leave our weekday identities. Here we are not moms or hair stylists or writers or social workers. Here, for two hours, we are dancers.

Ken ties the laces on his immaculate high-top kicks, turns up the volume, and takes his place in the front of class, facing the mirror. He gives a wicked smile, and we know what we have signed up for: good-natured abuse. Legs wide, we follow as his arms sweep from hips to sky. He models the quality of energy he wants us to give and we count on him to pull it out of us. Our ecstatic priest of boogie.

We reach the last movement. “Genuflect,” he says, just like he said the week before, and the weeks and years before that. “Thank your classmates for a good class. For showing up.” En masse, we step to our right, sweep our left leg behind us, stand tall with our arms extended, one toward the lobby and the other to the scuffed ceiling. We melt our bodies forward, crowns of heads bowing to wood floor, imagining ourselves princess swans. We lift our bodies, face our reflections in the mirror, and complete the movement on our left side. We stretch out the final moment; we make it last.

Walking home under the mellowing influence of my own body’s dopamine, not late for anything, I have no idea that this will be the last class. It is March 8, 2020. The e-mail comes the following week. Class cancelled.

We have all had so many “lasts” this year — last days of school and last ball games. Last words and last breaths.

For me on Sunday mornings now, I open my laptop to stream a dance class. “Shit, what’s wrong with the WiFi?” “Why didn’t I do this earlier?” Then I snap at my would-be helper, “I’m fine! Sorry. Thank you. It’s working.” Unfamiliar music plays in the background, and three dancers warm up on a black stage lit by white lights. They are barefoot, playful, and younger than me by half. In the top left corner of the screen, a number ticks up…750…800…1100…others streaming this right now. I push the square coffee table against the couch to make room. I push down my longing for the wood floor and mirror and camaraderie of real life dancers. I look at the screen, and at the tangerine trees outside my window. I reach left, then right, then close my eyes so I don’t see where I am, but only feel my movement. I imagine other people dancing alone in their living rooms, sobbing for what is missing.

What lasts?

Not the physical. My breath gives out sooner than it used to. Muscles that did not used to cramp do not forgive me for at least a week.  

What lasts? The memories, until they don’t. The photos, until they fade.

What lasts is the love for what — and who — we are missing. What lasts is the hope that they will return, even in some other form. What lasts is our miraculous human ability to adapt to what is, and keep going.

Cousins

In my mind’s eye I see the photograph that used to hang in my grandmother’s kitchen. The seven children of my generation (the California delegation), the cousins I grew up with, sit on the ivy-covered hillside of my aunt and uncle’s backyard, posed in a group before resuming our climbing. The sun has all but set, leaving enough light to see us by.

The four girls cluster together. On this occasion for some reason (maybe my aunt forewarned us there would be photographs?) my sister Marni and I wear matching dresses, a quilted design that reaches our ankles, and navy blue turtlenecks beneath. My cousin Liz sits next to me, legs crossed and hands clasped, in a red dress that reveals her knees. Sheryl, the youngest of us girls, wears her pigtails curled and tied with ribbons to match her dress. The two older boys, Marc and Michael, always a pair in those days, sit by each other’s side in corduroys, the uniform of the mid-1970’s. At the front, the youngest of our gang, four-year-old Greg peeks through straight blond hair, his mischievous smile revealing space where his front baby teeth should be, knocked out when he jumped out of a treehouse to prove his mettle.

I am seven or eight years old, and I am aware that it is the collective that matters. That I belong to something bigger. This photo with cousins — and the ritual of being asked to pose for it — imprints a message in my soul: these are your people.

These playmates are your story-bearers, your history-sharers. You will play and make up songs together, go to summer camp and sleepovers, attend each other’s birthdays and weddings. You will lose love and jobs and your hearts will break. The years will separate you by geography or politics or temperament. And yet through it all these will be your people.

The hillside on which we climb will bear witness to our family’s evolution. Our children’s footsteps will overlay the invisible imprints where ours once landed. And like our grandparents asked of our parents before us, we will ask our own kids to stop and pose, freeze just for a second. We will take their photo and tell them without words, you belong to each other.

What no one says enough is that you have to work for it. You have to claim it. That time will wear away the connections if you let it.

I pick up the phone, call your number. Your voice is there, carrying our history.

I’m still looking for the hillside cousins photo, but this one celebrating our grandparents’ 40th anniversary is another favorite from that year.
In 2015, the next generation of cousins at their great-grandmother’s 100th birthday party.


Reading Recommendation:

With the week’s focus on “cousins”, I offer you The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. One of the most fascinating, unexplored (by me) elements of this novel relates to the cousins of the story, the next generation, and the ramifications of their mothers’ choices not only on their individual lives, but on what is missed when deprived of each other. Their relationship is not the headline of this provocative novel, but is richly present throughout. My book club had a lot to say about this novel!

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.

Sing.

My husband sits down at the piano, nothing grand, his phone propped on the stand in front of him open to the app with chords to any song. Dinner has been cooked, consumed, cleaned. There are three of us left at home after a crowded winter break, hovering in a Sunday night feeling, the top of the rollercoaster before the newest week, and our hands in the air, or gripping the rails, ready to scream.

“This song is all about your mama,” he says to the kiddo, and plays a song I once sang at a karaoke place in Catalina, years ago when the whole family had fun together.

“Is it okay if I play now?” He asks me, not wanting to disturb my writing effort.

“Yes.” It is essential that you play it now, I think.

I rise from my seat, go to the piano bench, and straining for notes, we sing.

Sing, to float away from the hurts of the day.

Sing, to revive the chambers of heart and lungs.

Sing, to remember the last time you laughed with your home crowd in a packed restaurant.

Sing, to channel your grandmother’s favorite love song, and your grandfather’s favorite lullaby.

Sing to make yourself cry, and sing to make your body get up and dance.

Sing to expand your lungs, and to release the pain on your breath.

Sing I don’t want to miss a single thing you do tonight.

Sing Hallelujah. Exult.

Word of the Week: Renewal

One of my goals for this new year is to choose one word at the beginning of each week to inspire my thinking, writing, sharing of ideas — and to offer it as some inspiration for a brief writing prompt. My word for this, the first full week of the new year, is RENEWAL.

Last spring when the people went into hibernation, the cars cooling in driveways and school buses quieted, do you recall how the birdsong returned and the skies swept brighter blue? Do you remember the awe of witnessing nature, given the space to return, renewed? There are lessons to be found in this renewal as we reemerge into the world.

When the schools open up and the children reappear, what might it look like to honor their nature, rather than force it back into a tight and narrow place? What might teachers and school boards and pressuring parents reimagine, to honor what our children have been through, and encourage their renewal?

Beautiful answers to those questions are suggested in these words below, attributed to a school principal in Ballard, Washington and shared with me by a friend.

And, if you’re open to a writing prompt, try this:

I wish for renewal of ______.

Set a timer for 11 minutes, and write without stopping, without censoring, just follow your thoughts. (Credit to my friend and writer Dana Childers, and her “Untamed Writing” sessions, for this format.)

May you feel a renewal of whatever it is you need — creativity, compassion, commitment to your goals — in this new year.

Word of the Week

My word for this week, whose opening days hold the closing moments of the year, sounds soft but is filled with power.

Community.

Community is what we have missed so much. Community is what has the power to repair and lift.

The virus that carried destruction into our bodies also carried a clarion truth: we are all in this together. We live in one shared home. We share one biology. We live and die together.

So blast it in the foundation of your house. Scrawl it in freshly poured sidewalk. Dig it into the sandbox at the quiet park. Scar it into the plywood covering the windows of your old favorite restaurant.

Tattoo it on your forehead backwards.

We are all in this together.

May we enter the new year with an expanded sense of who we belong to so that all may be lifted. May we remind ourselves as often as we will forget that we are one human family. May we believe in the possibility of a world where everyone has enough — food, vaccine, love. May we remember the joy and the power of community. If this dying year could at least teach us that, it would be something.

A placeholder Thanksgiving. Keep it warm.

The memories come all at once, out of order.

Cousin Ken sitting in the middle of my folks’ living room, strumming folks songs on his guitar, offering Puff the Magic Dragon for then-pre-schooler Rebecca…and Kum-bala-laika for his mom Leona and my Grandma Lilli, calling them back to their father singing with his mandolin, bringing them to tears.

Every year, Greg showing up early so as not to miss any of the Dallas game. (Good luck today, by the way.) A football game on the front yard, where everyone but my dad got older, my sister and cousins and me replaced by our children.

If I strain, I can even remember when our grandmother still brought a “second” turkey to accommodate the growing family gathering, before we needed to fix a plate for her and bring it to where she sat. Before my mom eventually decided to leave all the cooking to Chef Ike — but Barbara kept bringing her apple cranberry fruit crumble thing, my favorite.

This year I’m making Barbara’s apple cranberry thing, which turns out to be very easy and will always be my favorite, though it may not taste the same since it won’t be scooped from the same ceramic baking dish.

This year we are apart. Hold the day, keep it warm, and we’ll be together again next year.

The well-loved recipe, by my aunt’s dear friend Susan Goldman.

May we choose to heal

Four years ago I wore white.

My boys declined my invitation to vote with me; they’d done it before, many times. But Maria accepted. I wasn’t sure if she was being kind, indulging me where my boys wouldn’t, or if she was as interested in seeing American democracy unfold as I was excited to show it to her. Knowing her, it was both.

We stepped out of the house, turned right, and began the familiar three block walk to the park where our polling place was set up. I was giddy, if a bit self-conscious in my all-white attire, until I saw other women approaching the polling place similarly dressed. It was a quiet way to scream how much this vote meant to us.

There is a preciousness to a town, to a country, where the place I cast my vote is the same place I asked my parents to take me on Saturdays. Where I ran through the sandbox barefoot; spun around dizzy on the merry-go-round; and licked ice cream cones bought from the freezer of the small store, not minding the dripping down my wrist. This park is where my own kids rode their first slides and I teared up to see their first shoots of independence. Where they made me chase them through obstacle courses of their design — up the fire engine, around the swings, to the monkey bars, until I begged for a break. Where my father coached my then-7-year-old niece’s basketball team and brought the team snacks. Where my sons played T-ball and baseball and basketball and flag football, and where Christopher and I now walk our dogs and see young families playing, masks on their faces.

As Maria and I approached the park gym four years ago, two little voices rang out from the sandbox, sweet and high in pitch, “Maria! Hi Maria!” She waved and called them by their names, a neighborhood celebrity greeting her fans.  

We entered the gym, basketball rims and hoops pulled out of the way above the folding table where volunteers greeted us, the same elders who showed up every election, the one woman who always thinks I am my sister until I sign my name. In exchange for my signature, she handed me a ballot.

I led Maria to a table, chest-high, with a voting machine. Step by step, I explained every logistic, huddling together to make sure she could see. “You have to press the ink hard so it makes a complete mark,” I instructed, thinking still and forevermore of Florida 2000, of “hanging chads” and recounts.

As we left, we took a picture to mark the historic day. We talked about how she would be able to vote by the time of the next Presidential election, and she said, “I can’t wait.”

The line for naturalization has slowed; still she waits. But about a year ago she told me with pride that during a visit to her cousins she had successfully gotten one, a member of the National Guard, to register to vote. They weren’t sure how to begin, and she suggested they go to the post office. When they got there, unsure of what to do next, she coached him, “Laura says if you don’t know, just ask.” I don’t remember saying that; I think she told herself.

The things our parents teach us. How to roast a turkey. How to make a U-turn. How to think for yourself. How to vote. They teach us the importance of showing up and speaking up, and that our voice is powerful. And, as with that day four years ago when things did not go as I had wanted, they teach us how to grieve and get up again. How to stand up for yourself, and even more importantly, how to stand up for others.

Election day 2020 dawned today. I put up our American flag. I am not as ebullient as I was four years ago — we have been through too much for ebullience. But I am hopeful.

I have hope for our democracy, imperfect and rattled as it is. Maybe seeing where the cracks in our system are shows us what needs shoring up, like just enough of a rainstorm to reveal where our roof leaks, but not big enough to bring the whole thing down.

I have hope for our American family, too, caught up in this crisis. Like any family rift, there comes a time to make a choice: Dig into estrangement, refuse to engage, isolate in pain, write each other off. Or, dig in for the challenge of reconciliation. Resolve to repair. Speak our truth and truly listen. Disagree with compassion. Say, “I don’t see it that way” not “You’re evil.” See each other’s full humanity and flaws. Accept that we may never be in full alignment, but know we are still one family. One country.

(Caveat: I do not know what to do with the dangerous my-enemy-drinks-blood-of-children trope. Maybe lovingly disengage for one’s own mental health. Maybe double down on love?)

I have hope for our country, our democracy. We are scarred, but we are wiser for it. Today, as we make a choice for President, may we choose to heal.