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
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
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.
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,
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.
Around our town the burgeoning sound of children’s protest and despair can be heard rising up toward the burnt July sky, as they realize that with the arrival of August, we are dangerously close to the first day of school, bearing down like a runaway freight train too close to stop before it smashes us. If the stewards of your school district also have decreed that summer ends mid-August, then you too have heard these sounds, the “why oh why’s” and the “woe is me’s” with which I fully concur; school should start in September.
But the calendar is also why I have finally relaxed into the pace of unscheduled lazy summer days. I did not have either the foresight, spine, or budgetary willingness to sign my kids up for endless camps. So with me working from home, they were left to their own devices — really, they were left alone to interact only with their devices, if only I would leave them alone. You must know that means the first half of summer featured ample nagging on my part. (Me: “Go play!” Them: “We are playing!” Me: “I meant outside!” Them: “Where’s the extension cord?”) I kid.
But with only two weeks left, I can let go! Now it’s not weeks of this conflict stretching before me, it’s mere days. So I surrender to days that have no goals or plans besides waking up and staying in pajamas until at long last someone must walk the dogs or go to the market because we are hungry. Days that are not filled with unique enriching activities, but if I’m lucky have been sprinkled with boogie boarding and soccer at the beach, water balloons or card games. And days that are filled with, yes, truly countless hours of xBox and YouTube videos. And I think, what was I so worried about? Will I remember to relax when next summer comes?
For now, August is upon us. There are only two weeks left. Have a great summer.
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!”
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.”
Author Camille Di Maio and I have a couple things in common: we both like to belt out show tunes on a whim, and to have travel adventures. Someday I hope to add to that list what she has accomplished today — the publication of a second novel. Today marks publication day for Camille’s second novel, BEFORE THE RAIN FALLS — no easy feat for a home-schooling mother of four! Meet Camille:
- What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
I have four children, ages 18, 16, 12, and 8. What I have learned through homeschooling them and running a large business out of our home is that they are watching everything. Whether any of us is aware of it, they are influenced by our every action, positive and negative. How did that affect my writing? It motivated me to press on through all the hardships that come with writing a book — finishing it in the first place, receiving rejection letters from agents, and pushing through difficulties to achieve a dream. I thought that writing a book was something I would do after they were grown, but through the process, I realized that it was so very important that they were there to see it all play out. Whatever they choose to do in the future, they will face adversity. They need an example of perseverance. So, the need to set a good example affected my writing in that it propelled me to write in the first place.
- Where do you write? What do you love about it?
My favorite place to write is a coffee shop. It can be hectic to write at home (although truthfully, that’s where most of it takes place). I’m an introvert at heart, so I love the buzz of having people around me but the privacy of being in my little cocoon. I also love to write at a beach. The vastness of water is so inspiring to me. We are making a big life change to move from Texas to the East Coast, so that we will have more opportunities to enjoy a coastal life!
- If you had a motto, what would it be?
My favorite motto comes from (Saint) Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Let no one come to you without leaving better or happier.” It is paramount to me that every encounter I have with someone is positive and loving. This is not always possible depending on the circumstances, but I can say that I try with everything I have. The smallest things can make or break a person’s day.
- Who inspires you?
My Aunt Cheryl inspires me. There is nothing she won’t try, no adventure she won’t go on, and she boldly sported a bald head as she fought through two bouts of cancer. She is unashamedly herself and her thoughtfulness knows no boundaries. She always puts others first. I aspire to be half the woman that she is.
- What charity or community service are you passionate about?
For many years, I have run an unofficial group called Camille’s Theater Club. I organize group tickets for hundreds of people when Broadway shows tour through San Antonio. This has helped many families — including my own — receive huge discounts on ticket prices, introducing many people to theater who might not otherwise have been able to afford it. Many times, a group of us met before a show for dinner, and that camaraderie was so much fun. Sometimes we wait at the stage door to meet the stars of the show. We have seen some amazing performances and created great memories.
- What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?
Right now, I am reading an early copy of THE WEIGHT OF LIES by Emily Carpenter. It is my favorite book of the year and I think it will be a tough one to topple. My favorite book of all time is OLIVIA AND JAI by Rebecca Ryman. It was her debut novel and is simply breathtaking.
Pam Jenoff is the author of ten novels, her latest — THE ORPHAN’S TALE — launched last month to much acclaim. I met Pam at the Jewish Book Conference in 2015, and she impressed me as warm, intelligent, funny, and humble. She is also a Penn Law grad and mother of young children. I’m pretty sure her motto (see below) has something to do with her prolific output. I’m pleased to introduce you to Pam Jenoff:
What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
I’ve had occasion lately to think a lot about the inherent tension between being a writer and being a mom. As a mother, I want to always be present in the moment. But my writer side secretly wants to sneak off and be with my characters. Essentially it is about the precious commodity of time, and I think the answer is to be wholly present for whichever aspect of life I am spending time on at that moment.
Where do you write? What do you love about it?
I have written in mountaintop retreats and castles. I have also written in my doctor’s office and in my car, and can tell you whether the coffee shops within a five mile radius of my house open at 6:00 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, because I’m there with my nose pressed against the glass wanting to get inside and write. Usually my office is my favorite place because I just love to be in my daily routine, doing my thing. I also do very well writing in hotels on book tour. But you can’t be too fussy about it.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
Every Damn Day. It’s all about moving the manuscript forward, even an inch at a time.
Who inspires you?
So many people! Great writers and great athletes. My kids. Right now, my mom, who has waged an epic health battle this year and is a total warrior for our family.
What charity or community service are you passionate about?
My big three causes have always been hunger, homelessness and at-risk youth. Right now, I’m passionate about book fair scholarships – making sure that children who cannot afford a book at a school book fair are able to choose one, instead of watching others get a book while they do without. My kids go to a very diverse public school and I’m really focused on including students from low-income families in all aspects of school life.
What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?
I am reading constantly. There are so many good books coming out this year: thrillers from Mary Kubica and Heather Gudenkauf, historical fiction from Janet Benton and Jillian Cantor, summer novels by Jamie Brenner and Jane Green, [read her Writer’s Life interview here – LND] just to name a few!
For book tour info, and to buy this book and her others, visit www.PamJenoff.com
“A gripping story about the power of friendship to save and redeem even in the darkest of circumstances, The Orphan’s Tale sheds light on one of the most colorful and inspiring stories of heroism in Nazi Germany. This is a book not to be missed.”
– Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife
I’m in my robe, a soft hug, as I glide downstairs in the last of the dark this morning, letting my son sleep a little too late. I’m the first one up today. I turn on the kettle, walk to the driveway for the paper. For good or ill, I am a devotee of newsprint, and I read the paper as though there will be a test.
The usual stuff. Politics. Crime. Environment. The Arts section ambushes me. A description of a Syrian war documentary. It provides a lesson in effective storytelling: describe one tragedy and you will break more hearts than the most unfathomable, impersonal statistics: A father in a rickety boat tries to save his children from drowning, one-by-one. It’s too much. I close my eyes. I may have to go back to bed.
I turn the page and am saved. There is Amy Krouse Rosenthal. She, as you may know, wrote the now-viral Modern Love essay “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” in light of her waning days “as a person on this planet. Could the story of her life, and her death, have the answers? How can a person live such a loving, generous, gracious, wise, creative life? In a world of war and drowning children, does it make a difference?
Maybe it does. I went online to read more about her. I read that she loved creating so much, she made a short film about 17 things she created, and then invited people to meet her in a Chicago park to make a cool 18th thing together. And they came! I watched the first video, “The Beckoning of Lovely.” She brought people together to make beauty.
But still, in a world that hold so much sorrow, does making all that beauty make a difference? This isn’t a new question. There has always been the duality, tragedy and beauty. Maybe the question is what do you choose to focus on? Amy has said, “Whatever you decide to look for you will find.” So you may as well look for the good. Beckon the lovely.
Love your children for who they are in all of their “ok-ness.” Love yourself for who you are in the same way. How can this make the world better? In this TEDx talk, Amy advises,”Ask not what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go to it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” So, no, I will not solve the Syrian war crisis today, but nor will I retreat to bed. If we try to find what makes us come alive, and go to it, we might add a little more peace to our world. And that will be a good day.
If you are among the people who this week may be craving a little extra reality-escape, I’m here to suggest: Read BOOKS! To that end, allow me to introduce you to family therapist and author Holly Brown, and her new psychological thriller, THIS IS NOT OVER.
- What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
In high school, I wanted to be the next S.E. Hinton (no, I’m not dating myself at all here.) S.E. Hinton wrote “The Outsiders,” “That Was Then…This is Now,” and other fantastic books that were all the rage when I was a teenager. She was a teenager herself when she was published, which made her my idol. So when I was about fifteen, I finished writing my first novel. My family lived in Philadelphia, and there was one literary agent that we found in the Yellow Pages. My father drove me to the agent’s office so I could deliver my manuscript personally. Now, barring the fact that this is not at all how submitting to agents works and that I was summarily rejected and that I didn’t get published for many more years, what I love about the story is that my parents never doubted that talent and drive could make things happen. They never doubted that MY talent and drive could make things happen. So I carry that confidence and determination into my writing, and my life. And I want to bring it to my daughter’s life, too.
- Where do you write? What do you love about it?
This is the least sexy answer ever, but I love to write from my bed. It’s just so cozy. Sometimes I have the TV on, which is something you would never encourage your kids to do at a time of concentration, but it’s kind of like having a party going on nearby. For some reason, that works for me. And I think it’s important that every writer just finds a system that works for them and embraces it, fully.
- If you had a motto, what would it be?
Stay curious. It’s critical to me as a writer, and as a therapist, and as a human being. It’s dangerous to feel like you know everything. And it’s boring.
- Who inspires you?
Sue Johnson, who developed emotionally focused therapy. It’s informed by attachment theory, which says that the emotional bonds we have with our loved ones are vital, starting with our parents. But it doesn’t stop there, and even if you didn’t get what you needed as a child, you can still get it later in life; you just have to work a little harder. Sue Johnson helps couples learn to love well, to become emotionally secure and able to truly depend on one another, and her teachings have made me a much better therapist.
- What charity or community service are you passionate about?
I feel passionately about an informed electorate, and about the necessity for independent investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is on the decline at a time when we need it most in order to keep elected officials and corporations accountable. ProPublica is an amazing non-profit dedicated to finding, researching, and telling stories that advance the public interest. They’re funded almost entirely through donations: https://www.propublica.org/
For more about Holly:
P.S. If you are lucky enough to be in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area on Tuesday, January 17, at 7pm, you can meet Holly for her launch party at Books Inc. Alameda (a hop, skip and jump from the Oakland Airport), one of my favorite bookstores.
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,
We talked about what sparked her to create The Mother Company — her passionate desire for quality children’s entertainment that would support parents’ efforts to raise kind, well-adjusted kids. She and a partner envisioned it, planned it, worked hard, and created it.
Then we talked about the how. She told me about her “Vision Quest” practice, a way of dreaming and planning that she credits for helping get control of her life. The idea: Plan a mini-retreat with a trusted friend, bring a paper and pen, dream of what you would like to achieve, and write down concrete deadlines and goals for how you’re going to do it. She wrote about her 2016 process here, with helpful step-by-step instructions. This past year her goals ranged from making new friends to winning an Emmy for The Mother Company’s “Ruby’s Studio” TV show. Guess what? Both accomplished.
The close of one year and birth of new one is the perfect time to try a Vision Quest. I have resolved to set aside time for it after the kids go back to school. I’m already mulling possible goals — complete my second novel, or perhaps even sell it? Travel more? Connect with friends more often, in person or on the telephone, instead of texting or not at all?
I’m so grateful that Abbie and I had that walk, and I’m very happy to share Abbie’s Vision Quest article with you. My new year’s wish for you: May you make all your dreams come true.