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.

Reading earlier posts from this time of year, I marvel at how much has remained constant, though so much has changed. In this post from seven years ago, Christopher and I wanted to greet the new year at the ocean, while our kids refused to budge. The same was true yesterday, but now our boys are plenty old enough for us to wave goodbye without grandparents materializing at our front door to babysit, as they did years ago. In fact, so much time has passed that the rabbi’s sermon this year about ethical driving (practicing “patience, gratitude, and forgiveness” behind the wheel) arrived at the perfect moment for our 15-year-old firstborn’s ears.

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.

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Lesson from the check-out line: Spread Joy

This time my prophet appeared in the form of a Trader Joe’s cashier.

Let’s call him AJ. He was chatting with the cute young woman in front of me, and their conversation continued after she had paid and her groceries were bagged.

I felt aggravation bubbling up. I took a deep, patient breath. I decided to notice the sweetness in their conversation, to wonder if this moment would be the one they would tell their future children about — how Daddy handed Mommy his phone number on a bent and dusty business card.

They finished talking after about 10 seconds, probably less, and he began ringing up my purchases. I was proud of myself for not wasting energy on harrumphing. He was one of those “How are you? I’m great, I’m super, what a blessed day” type of guys. As he started ringing up my purchases, he offered up his personal M.O.: “I wake up in the morning and decide ‘Today going to be great.’ No matter what happens, you have to decide that.” He explained, as he bagged my frozen taquitos and smoked mozzarella, that with this attitude, even if he has a car accident, it won’t ruin his day. It’s just part of his day.

His attitude dovetailed with my new resolution to laugh more. To lighten up. I tend toward the serious. Even my gratitude is serious – for the absence of all the baaaaad things that can happen. My motivation for the new attitude is my kids; I want their idea of me to be fun and laughing, not worried and cranky. I have precious few years left to imprint their childhood memories.

This happy-gas effort has been working, though it takes some mindfulness to counter my default “serious” outlook.

Let’s be clear, I have nothing against seriousness – it is requisite for significant social change. I mean, we have to presume that America’s Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were serious people, who were never heard to utter, “Let’s not worry about equal rights! Turn up the music and pass the cupcakes!” Seriousness of purpose has a place. But I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

The day after AJ, I heard the same message at Torah study. Even though the weekly portion was about skin eruptions. 

I will spare you the gorey details and cut to the chase. Rabbi Amy Bernstein showed us a little rabbi trick she had learned, because rabbis like to play with language and meaning. She took the Hebrew word for blemish, moved its letters around, and turned it into the Hebrew word for joy. Whether you see a blemish or joy, she suggested, depends on your perspective.

Joy blooms when you look for it. The sages knew it. AJ knew it. And, just like certain skin eruptions, joy can spread to people around you, be they your kids, your spouse, or the lady in the check-out line.

Be careful. It’s catching.

 

No More Massacres, No More Wasting Time

It has been a rough week. Emotionally, I’m spent. Our latest American massacre hit me hard. (I should specify that I mean the one in San Bernardino, in case while I’m writing helicopters and hashtags are moving on to a newer, fresher massacre.) I can’t shake the dread. Maybe because it’s on the heels of Paris, which showed us that simple pleasures cannot be enjoyed without looking over your shoulder. Maybe because San Bernardino is physically closer to me than other recent shootings – a place I’ve been and could give you directions to. But most likely, it’s because earlier this week, while reeling from the horrors in San Bernardino, our phone rang with a message: “This is your Principal. Today we had an anonymous telephone threat at our school.” A threat to shoot up the playground.

Do you remember watching the shooting rampage in Columbine unfold? The bafflement you felt? I remember crying, feeling numb. But now, the numbness is gone. Every new shooting brings sighs of regret and outbursts of anger. But we move on.

Perhaps that’s for the best? We still have to send our children to school, go to work, fly on airplanes to visit grandparents. We have to go to the doctor. We cannot persist in a state of numbness and crying, so we have adapted to the new world order. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we have to leave our homes. We have to push the feelings somewhere in our psyche that says, “this won’t happen here.”

And then it does.

We have a choice: If shooting massacres are par for the course, we either take them in stride, or we have a radical revolution.

To be clear, I am not advocating a revolution of more guns. We cannot shoot our way out of this danger. (I understand the temptation of thinking “If someone at that [school, church, office] had a gun, maybe they would have stopped the killers.” But that sentiment flies in the face of data. To wit: There have been many massacres on military bases. I would be okay with more police officers, more licensed, vetted security (as opposed to every parent in carpool packing heat). But the radical revolution I want is to stop shooters before they start shooting, to make it harder to get guns.

We can debate if the 2nd Amendment allows it, but we do not have to debate if this works. We can point to Australia. We can decide to stop wasting time debating.

This morning, a packed auditorium of angry and terrified parents showed up at our elementary school to find out what the Principal and District are going to do about safety, in light of the telephoned threat. It was an hour of blaming, worrying, demanding answers and suggesting improvements.

After this tense meeting, I headed to Torah Study. I walked in late. I took a breath and exhaled. I couldn’t concentrate. I listened half-heartedly to the conversation, the joking and questions and responses. My mind was on the playground, filled with scenes of what could have been. I tuned in at the last minute to hear our rabbi say, “Being present for one another” is what makes everything okay when nothing else is okay.

“Being present for one another” can be a path out of despondency, and it can be the catalyst to make a safer world:

Be there for each other. Rally together with one voice to change our culture of defending an absolute unfettered right to as many guns and bullets as you want. (Be there for each other may also counsel me not to demonize people who disagree with me. I’m going to presume that even the NRA is opposed to mass murder by gun, even if they happen to be part of the problem.)

Be there for each other. Pick up the baton when someone needs a rest from this campaign.

Be there for each other. Call your Congressman and Senator every day until they tell you their plan to make us safer.

Be there for each other. Inspire each other to think of creative solutions, because we are stuck in a stalemate that does not make us safer.

Be there for each other. Encourage each other to stay as outraged and motivated by heartbreak as we once were, and still need to be.

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.

 

 

 

Behind the scenes of Shelter Us

I thought I’d share some “behind the scenes” of how my debut novel, Shelter Us, evolved from first draft to final form. Today’s tidbit: Torah study.

What’s that? You heard me.

After I had completed the first draft and was working sloooowly on revising, I began attending Torah study with Rabbi Amy Bernstein, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, a progressive and all-around awesome place. (Her podcasts are here.)

Every week in Torah study we read and dissected ancient stories, and found connections to modern human foibles, habits, and yearnings — both personal and universal. What surprised me about Torah study, and what kept me coming back, was twofold: how relevant it was — how much I learned from it as a parent, a friend, a citizen. And how completely beautiful its purpose — to inspire humans toward becoming our best selves, all the while recognizing hey, we’re only human.

So nuts and bolts, how did this affect Shelter Us? Well, the first draft already had Sarah meeting and reaching out to Josie, a young homeless mother. (Obviously, my good Jewish Tikkun Olam training had already seeped into the plot.) But I went back and deepened Sarah’s motivation for doing that, deciding to make her late mother a Jewish convert, someone who often modeled the most important Jewish value: Remember we were strangers; welcome and take care of the stranger.

There more I think about it, the more Jewish values I find infused in Shelter Us, from its title, to the idea of passing values from one generation to the next, to the role of ritual, and even to the biggie: beliefs about God. And the more questions there are to explore.

  • How do you continue to learn and grow, be it philosophy, spirituality or history or something else?
  • Have you found yourself more or less drawn to religion or spirituality as you’ve gotten older?

Thanks for reading. Any questions you’d like answered? Feel free to ask in a comment, or contact me. More to come soon!

Introducing Spring, and Maria

The bees are having an orgy with our bottle brush tree.

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It’s blooming like mad. Needle thin magenta red flowers are exploding all over the place.

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They land in my hair as I trim its branches to unblock the backyard gate – crucial for quick bike getaways and the kids’ friends direct access to the trampoline. I prune its branches until I’m covered in sweat and tiny red needles, or until the bees get too angry. I’ve never liked this tree.

Maria sees the tree differently. Just yesterday she pointed with reverence to dozens of buds about to bloom.

Allow me to introduce Maria.

Maria is from Guatemala, and has been part of our family since January. She is the older sister my sons never knew they were missing, whom they embraced faster than I’d ever imagined possible. She has a family back home — younger brothers, older sisters, mom and dad. But it is not safe to be a teenage girl there. That’s enough said about that.

Maria helps me see many things differently, not just the loathsome bottlebrush tree. Through her eyes I see abundant, under-appreciated privileges: walking alone at night in our neighborhood; living near a public high school so desirable that kids take a bus two hours to attend it; having books in our house; enjoying freedom from fear.

It is easy not to notice the bounty you have when everyone around you has the same, and expects it. When everyone wants more. 

It’s easy to forget to appreciate the red flowers.

The blooming tree announces spring’s arrival, and the arrival of Passover, with exclamation points.

Maria helps me see Passover with new eyes, too. This year when my family gathers for a Seder, when we read our Haggadah (including MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, and a song about Pharaoh sung to the tune of the Brady Bunch), one fundamental Jewish mandate will rise above all else: that we were once the stranger, and that we have a sacred duty to welcome the stranger now.

The star of the Passover story is Moses, of course, leading those Hebrew slaves out of oppression. This year I will be thinking a lot about Moses’ mother, who placed her helpless infant in a basket and floated him down the Nile to save his life. I think of the courage it took to spare him. Of the heartbreak. I think of Maria’s parents, who had to do the same. And I think about the woman downriver, who happened to be at the river’s edge at the right moment. Who plucked the child out, who acted on instinct to save him.

My grandmother reminded me recently that her mother, Mary, was also sent away to save her, from Vilna, Lithuania, to America’s saving arms. Like my great-grandmother, our Maria was an “unaccompanied minor” seeking the simple promise of ordinary: to live and study and work in peace. My great-grandmother ended up living a blessed life. My heart is filled with hope that Maria will have a measure of the same. And it echoes with sorrow for their selfless mothers and fathers.

As for the red flowers, I think I’ll let them grow.

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This Time We Can Help

My eight-year-old son comes to me in the dawning day in mismatched pajamas. He hesitates for a moment before climbing into my warm bed, then he speaks: “Time to snuggle.”

It is this exquisite moment I am trying not to think of as I suppress a sob a few hours later this morning.  I am sitting at Sarah’s kitchen table, listening to a woman I’ve just met describe her eighth year. That was the year she survived the Holocaust.

I know eight so well. I picture my son’s 2nd grade classroom full of energetic, earnest and exuberant boys and girls, whose greatest concerns are mastering handball and subtraction. I picture her at eight years old, watching her mother fall victim to a death march they were forced to endure. Other women, younger and stronger, urging her to keep going. She says she would not have survived without their help. Here she is now in Los Angeles, telling her story, strong and secure, with children and grandchildren of her own.

I am at a meeting of the Steering Committee for the Funds for Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need. I have found my way here due to the plea of one of my Torah study mates, Sarah Moskovitz, a pioneering therapist to child survivors.  They have organized because the last survivors, the children who survived concentration camps and ghetto annihilations and death marches, the children who watched their brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents die, the children who were miraculously hidden and saved by righteous gentiles, need help.

The Committee, many of them survivors or children of survivors, discuss the situation. There are about 10,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in Los Angeles. Of those, about 3,000 are at or near the poverty line. They make daily choices between food, medicine and rent. These children of the Holocaust need not be put through suffering again, when they have us, their communal family, to help.

Sitting at my side, Samara Hutman, Executive Director of Remember Us: The Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project, expresses her view: “The world once stood by and allowed these most vulnerable people, these children, to suffer such agony. Now we have one last chance to do right by them.”

Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles provides help to these Survivors, but the financial support that once came from the German government as Restitution for Holocaust Survivors have now been cut. The need is great.

I’ve never done anything for Holocaust survivors. I’ve cried at films, I’ve visited museums, but I’ve done nothing. It seems so distant in time and place. But sitting next to a woman, elegantly dressed at this early hour, who says, “That was me. I lived that,” I am moved to action. Humbled by the strength and dedication of the people at this table, I offer what I can. We offer what we can. Jews, Gentiles, all of us. Like the women who would not let that little girl fall down when her mother could go no longer, we are their family.

If you’d like to learn more, please contact The 1939 Club at (310) 491-7802 or info@1939club.com or visit www.1939Club.com. To contribute, a tax deductible check may be written to The 1939 Club, 8950 Olympic Blvd. #437, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. You will be sent an acknowledgment and receipt. You may use the form below, or at visit the website of Kehillat Israel Synagogue.

Thank you.