How to Dance in the Rain: Another Lesson from My Grandmother

I wake Friday morning. Think: Another day. Another gift.

Full from Thanksgiving, I dress for a jog, or maybe the YMCA. Whim will decide.

A jog would mean fresh air and sunshine and — the big payoff — an expansive ocean view. The gym would mean maybe I pick up some weights, challenge my muscles. That’s important for a woman my age, I hear. I jog toward the gym.

I choose an elliptical at the end of the row, to put some space between me and the other post-indulgence machine-runners. It asks my weight and my age so it can choose how hard I should work. I lie about my age. By a lot. It’s not vanity; this machine doesn’t know how strong 49 can be.

My view from this machine is split: on the right, through the open double doors, I see the elementary school across the street. I am looking directly at the windows of Aaron’s first-grade classroom. I play a trick on myself; I time travel. “Imagine it is 11 years ago,” I tell my brain, “and Aaron is 6 and learning double-digit addition and subtraction, using the newspaper’s box scores to add each quarter of the basketball games.”

The trick makes me nauseous. I can’t sustain it for a second. That little boy is almost 18, graduates high school in months, then will leave for college. Fuck!

It goes so fast.

On the left side, my view is of televisions mounted to the wall. They are there to distract us, keep us pedaling, jogging, climbing, longer. Trying to stay healthy, longer. Trying to make our time here longer. On one TV is a college basketball game, all eyes on the coach. I time travel again, forward this time, and imagine that coach is Aaron, and I am on this same elliptical machine watching him live his dream. I believe in his dream. I smile. Thinking about the future doesn’t make me nauseous like returning to the past did.

The hardest challenge is being right here, now. I once wrote on a rock, “Be here now,” trying to create a reminder to help me stay present. Emmett found my rock and poked fun at my solemnity, writing on the back, “Where? HA! HA!” I found it on my desk. It was so Emmett, I had to laugh. I can take myself too seriously.

At the Y, a man I’ve known all my life walks in. We went to kindergarten together at that school across the street. Then his daughter and Aaron went to kindergarten together there. She’s also on the edge of what’s next. “How’s the college stuff going?” he asks. This can’t be happening, I want to say. They are only five, I want to say. Hell, WE are only five! “Great,” I say.

It goes so fast.

I walk home, it’s time to get ready to leave for the unveiling of my grandmother’s gravestone,. It has been a little more than a year since she died, and her name has been added to join my grandfather’s. We chose Thanksgiving weekend so all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be present.

We gather under a white canopy on a picture perfect fall day in Los Angeles. We have no clergy, we only need ourselves. Our memories. Where to beginThere are so many, my sister says. This is not the end of telling stories, my mom reminds us. My aunt shares, “Some people wait for the storm to end, and some people dance in the rain.” Lilli danced in the rain. My cousins tell of the evil eye she gave to anyone who asked her age, including her kids. We laugh. And on we go.

I have brought my “Be here now”/”Where? HA! HA!” rock to leave on her gravestone. I love how it marries her occasional word of wisdom with her abiding need to crack herself up. I have spent hours telling her stories about things my boys had done, hoping to give her a laugh, perhaps a funny anecdote she could retell herself when she needed something to cheer her. I tell my family the story of the rock, from my intention to Emmett’s rewriting. We crack up. It is perfect.

I try to be present now, to cover my ears to the siren call of future and past. I give thanks for a family that holds these memories with and for me, a family connected by shared love and history, by reminders to dance in the rain, and laugh as hard and as often as we can.

We all put rocks on the gravestone. They are decorated and glittered and painted, some with words evoking Lilli, like LOVE and FAMILY and BROOKLYN. We cover every space, we make that gravestone look like a party, the best party you ever went to. We ask each other what will happen to the rocks, noticing that all of the others around here are bare. There is talk of returning with Gorilla Glue, perhaps adding a new story to the canon.

How to Conquer Death

 

We time-traveled to 1991 last week. It was our 25th college reunion, and it filled my well. For a bubble of time, my husband and I and many friends reverted to being occupied primarily with having fun together – asking what we want to do next, dancing, staying up too late, eating cheesesteaks at 3am.

In the week leading up to it, trivialities crossed my mind: What will I wear? Is there time for a facial? How can I have a pimple in a wrinkle?

Christopher’s wiser thought: “I’m so grateful we are still here and healthy, and able to see so many friends who are still here and healthy.” Yes, that.

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As we reveled, our younger son and his grandparents binge-watched one of their favorite shows on the Smithsonian channel: Air Disasters. By the time we were flying home from the reunion weekend, he was well-acquainted with the aviation science behind a dozen different crashes. We thought of each of them during the abnormally shaky take-off, and mid-flight bumpiness.

I can’t be the only one who things about life and death in those instances. Death scares me. And I hate that scared feeling. It’s the second worst part of dying, I’d venture. In those terrifying moments, I talk myself through why I should not be afraid. It comes down to gratitude for my life so far.

Let’s start with loving parents and a protective playmate in my sister. Ample resources for food, shelter, and ballet lessons. Good teachers in good, safe schools. A mostly unscathed adolescence, with enough social pain to help me guide my children through their bumps and bruises. Glorious teenage friends, and yes we did own the world for a time. I had letdowns, and silver linings, and learned that you can’t always tell the difference between a blessing and a curse in the moment.

I had the grace to choose a career I wanted, and to make friends who continue to inspire me. I had the brilliant luck of finding Christopher, the love, the caring, the tenderness, the support, the babies.

Oh, the beautiful delicious babies, so big now.

There are many things still to do, many more words to write, hugs to hold onto. I’m greedy for more more more. But even if I live to be 120 years old, it may never be enough.

So I try to remember this:

If we are souls incarnate, and if souls are mysterious energies spinning around in the universe, this one universe in a hundred thousand, and if we get to land on Earth for a while, in the midst of millions of galaxies, in all of creation, then we ought not complain when the ride is over. We have to try to be grateful we had the ride at all. It’s like going to Kauai: You’re sad when you leave, but you were lucky to have been there at all.

I turn my head and look out the wide glass doors of my house to the trumpet vines beginning to cover the trampoline. The blessed beauty of chlorophyll, of greenest leaves and caterpillar temptation. The radical genius of hot coffee and sweet cinnamon dough. The miracles of being:  A kiss. Soft skin warm. Baby faces and little-boy-bellies, blossoming young men. Tickles that still yield laughter. Oh rapture.

 

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Words Meant to Be Shared

It may have been the glass of red wine with dinner. Or the 3-hour time change. Or my mother’s delicate snoring in the bed next to mine in our hotel, that kept me awake our first night in New York. Yet, as I pulled the pillow over my head, planning a Duane Reade earplugs run, I was grateful to be able to hear that sound, to sleep near my mother, still.

Our reason for being here: the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and its author networking conference, aka the “Pitchfest.” In those wakeful midnight hours, I ran over and over my two-minute pitch.

You get two minutes. Two minutes to summarize seven years of writing, revising, abandoning, and returning to a manuscript that represents your most personal ideas and emotions. You sit in a filled-to-capacity sanctuary (thinking everyone here wrote a book, too??), waiting for your turn to tell the savvy book festival planners from around the country why they must choose your book for their communities. And you pinch yourself because you’re one of the authors, and everyone in this room loves books as much as you do.

When it was my turn, I left my written notes on my chair, I looked out at the audience, remembered that they wanted me to nail it, and took a breath. I talked to them like I was talking to my mom, telling them about my labor of love. And instead of two minutes it happened during a single encapsulated, time-not-passing, bubble of a moment.

Here’s what I said:

One of the most beautiful commandments in our tradition is to take care of the stranger – the vulnerable and powerless. This always resonated with me, but even more so after I became a mom. I began to see everyone – even a homeless person on the sidewalk – as someone’s child. But like many people, I struggle with wanting to help and not knowing how.

In my novel Shelter Us, Sarah, a mother of two who is grieving the death of an infant, sees a young homeless mother and child, and she can’t stop thinking about them. Remembering her late mother’s many examples of caring for “the stranger,” moves her to reach beyond her comfort zone and try to help them.

Writing about Sarah’s journey allowed me to explore the difficult question of how we respond to the need we see every day. But even more, it was my way of wrestling with a mother’s universal fear that the worst could happen to her child. Sarah, who suffered that loss, sings a Hashkivenu prayer to her children at bedtime, asking for God’s sheltering arms to keep them safe. The song she sings, “Shelter Us,” I first heard at Jewish summer camp, and its primal yearning has stayed with me all these years.

Shelter Us raises some wonderful questions to explore together:

Who are today’s strangers and what are our responsibilities to them as Jews? 

Can helping others heal our own wounds? 

What are the values we want to pass to our children, and how do we communicate them? 

In what ways did Torah study impact my thinking and writing? 

How do we move beyond our fears, to savor the small, beautiful moments of parenthood that are all too fleeting?

And then it was the next author’s turn.

As soon as I sat down I was thinking of what I’d wished I’d said: This book has great blurbs by brilliant bestselling authors! Library Journal recommends it for book clubs! You’re gonna love it! You’re absolutely gonna love it!

But, like life, there are no do-overs. There are words you will wish you didn’t leave unsaid.

My mom is sitting behind me as I write these words to you, and she’s about to leave to spend a day in the city with cousins, while I go do more book stuff. “Mom,” I call out before she leaves. “I have to tell you something!” She stops, a  look of concern floats across her face. And I try to tell her what she means to me.