How I Found My Hakuna Matata

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Going on a safari was on my mother-in-law Joyce’s bucket list, not mine. Still, we gratefully accepted the invitation to accompany her. (We’re givers, I know.)

For a year we received e-mails from Joyce admonishing us what to do to prepare for the trip to Tanzania (not the least of which was practicing taking a shower with our mouths closed). Care packages of DEET and rain ponchos arrived at our house. I stored them in a drawer and hoped I wouldn’t forget where I’d put them many months later when it came time to pack.

The safari loomed in the future for so long. Now we have been and returned. It is over in time, but not gone.

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When you don’t know what to expect in an experience, you allow room for surprises. Sure, I expected that I would enjoy seeing a place on our planet unique in its preservation of land and animals. I expected that I would ooh and aah over elephants and giraffes and lions and baboons. I did not expect, however, that the pace of our journey, slow and in the moment, would linger quite so long when I returned to “real life.” Call it the Hakuna Matata Effect; it lasts.

I’m not speaking of the red dust that still clings to my suitcase. I’m speaking of the less tangible residue, like the first Swahili words we learned as we rushed to get everyone and six suitcases into a jeep on our way to the Arusha airstrip for a propeller flight to the Serengeti. “Pole pole,” he said (poh-lay poh-lay). “Slowly, slowly.” We’ll get there. Just breathe. It takes the same amount of time to move calmly as it does to feel rushed and to rush others.

I’m speaking of the melodious sound of Swahili, embodied in this ear worm of a song taught to us by our very patient driver/guide Ellison (and which essentially translates to, “What’s up, dude? Everything’s cool; no worries in Tanzania.”):

 

I’m speaking of my continued longing for the sound of only birds and animals and wind, instead of the sounds that fill my habitat: houses striving for perfection with incessant remodels; hammers and power saws; lawnmowers and leaf blowers; fire engine sirens; airplanes droning; electronic devices buzzing and dinging.

 

 

Mostly, I’m speaking of the perspective gained by traveling outside of my culture, which all-too-quickly fades upon reentry. For a week I was not constantly connected to cable “news.” For a week I watched animals who knew nothing of North Korea or Russia or the United States, who cared nothing about SAT Prep classes or Bar Mitzvah caterers or glitchy WiFi at the office. I am not saying I wish I were Maasai, or that I would like my world to constrict to hunting and gathering. I am saying I needed the reminder that some of my concerns are cuckoo creations of my cultural bubble. They have no intrinsic universal value, and I can choose which to ascribe to, and which to let go.

I cling to the residue of Tanzania. For a week, I was with my family, away from the push/pulls that animate our lives at home. For a week we lived a starkly different pace — on the go at 6 am, eating breakfast and lunch in the quiet of the bush, in bed at dark, falling asleep to those sounds of nature. For a week our eyes set upon the unfamiliar beauty of flat-topped acacias and rocky outcroppings that shelter lion cubs. And for a week we spent 8-10 hours bumping around in a jeep looking for glimpses of animal action, and peeing outside when Ellison decided the threat of lion or leopard attack was low. Joyce said it was the trip of a lifetime, and that she will never do it again.

Me? I’m ready to plan my return.

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P.S. Bonus video: Watch an elephant multi-task, and listen to our amazed commentary. And finally, the words to “Jambo buana” song, written out for us by Ellison.

 

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Seen through a Snowstorm: Creations Take On Their Own Life

We drove to Mammoth to celebrate my firstborn’s birthday: 15.

FIFTEEN. To you that may sound little, depending on your point of view, but indulge me. It’s as big as he’s ever been.

The weather conspired against us. It will snow all day, both days, with 50 mph winds. Lucky me, I’d decided in advance that I wasn’t skiing this time. It’s not my cup of cocoa, let’s say; I am preoccupied with falling, even before I put my boots on. My job today is ski support from the comfort of the lodge, writing and reading contentedly. Family bonus: I spare my husband having to worry about me while keeping track of the kids, too.

It’s not about the skiing, anyway, our trip. It’s about board games. It’s about meals together, and movies in the room. It’s even about the travel days, together in a car driving through California’s desert-to-mountain landscape. It’s the offhand conversations, singing with the radio, brothers watching TV shows sharing an iPad… and no fighting all day?! This is the good stuff. This is the good stuff. Did I mention 15?

At this moment I am sitting in the lodge looking out at near white-out conditions. My feet are cold despite two pairs of socks and boots. I’m supposed to be working on Novel 2. I’m in the first draft. I feel like I’m still learning how to write — in a good way — and hope to always feel that way. Bits of positive feedback for Shelter Us still trickles in, which feeds my determination to keep on writing. Like yesterday, I received an e-mail from a fellow She Writes Press author, Barbara Stark-Nemon, who had just read it and kindly shared with me the review she’d posted on Amazon and Goodreads. It began with a quote that I thought sounded so beautiful and then I realized, happily and with surprise, Duh, she’s quoting ME. I didn’t recognize my own words. My sentences took on their own life, they were not part of me anymore. They grew from me but became themselves.

I glance up and outside to the mountain. The glare is bright and my eyes take a moment to adjust. There’s the ski lift, there’s a tree, there’s the snow blowing across the sky. A faint body moves against the mountain through that snowy haze. I can’t see my boys, but I know they are out there, separate from me and gloriously growing into themselves, swooshing or falling all on their own.

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Home!

“Three weeks is too long,” was the grumbled consensus as we began the final leg of the book tour/vacation last week. We all would have been happy to come home then. But we gallantly submitted to the extra days of recreation — water park and lobster rolls and beach and…bookstores.

The bookstores! They are thriving, people! From Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, I visited 23 bookstores in 21 days.

Book Culture, NYC

Book Culture, NYC

Words, Maplewood, NJ

Watchung, Montclair, NJ

Watchung, Montclair, NJ

Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT

Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT

Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Some were quiet, others were bustling with summer readers, but there seemed to be a consensus among booksellers that an equilibrium has been reached, that the slaughter of the indies has ended.

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY

Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY

Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY

Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY

Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY

Inquiring Minds, New Paltz, NY

Diane's Books, Greenwich, CT

Diane’s Books, Greenwich, CT

Main Street Books, Orleans, MA

Main Street Books, Orleans, MA

Booksmith, Orleans, MA

Booksmith, Orleans, MA

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

Brewster Books, Brewster,  MA

Brewster Books, Brewster, MA

This joyful news comes with some melancholy for me, because my local bookstore did not survive, a casualty of high rents and challenging times. I miss Village Books in Pacific Palisades. I miss the floor mural of authors. I miss the wall displaying what local book clubs were reading. I miss the chairs by the window, perfectly sunlit. I miss the children’s section. I miss the author readings, the folding chairs brought out for people packed in to hear writers — the famous, the local, and sometimes captured in one person. I miss having my favorite place in town, where some nights when I needed to leave the confines of my house I would walk just to look in its window.

I remember when I walked into the store in 2007, to deliver my pitch for a reading for Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, a collection of stories and poems by twenty writers I had edited and published. When I started this project, I had no intention of creating book. I simply needed a creative outlet, as my life was dedicated to the care and feeding of two little children. As the project grew, I realized I had a moving, lasting work, so I learned how to publish it. Walking into the store, I had barely uttered, “I have a book” when owner Katie O’Laughlin broke into a huge smile and said, “We’ll have a reading!” I wanted to kneel and kiss her shoes for her generosity.

Village Books' last evening.

Katie addressing the crowd at Village Books’ last evening.

The absence of Village Books is the only blot on the joy of coming home. After being away for three weeks, everything is one degree less familiar than when we left, everything is precious: the unadorned glory of one’s own bed, its worn sheets singing their softness, not their wear and tear. The 4th of July streamers left in one tree. The weeds displaying their power. My not-so-little-anymore little one singing, “Being at home feels so so good! Being at home feels so so good!” Indeed, it does. And although my bookstore-next-door lives only in the hearts and memories of its many loyal customers, I’m thrilled to know that so many other indies are still going strong.

And I’m setting out to visit as many as I can. California…here I come.

Best Mother’s Day Gift … Time Together in the Great Outdoors

Mother’s Day has been a bit of a fiasco in recent past. Police helicopters and lost children and whatnot. (Father’s Day hasn’t fared much better — we had a lifeguard-rescue-from-riptide situation two years back. Where was I while my progeny fought for their lives? Reading a book on the sand facing away from the sea.)

The biggest dramas now are our “disagreements” about electronics in my home. My kids and I do not see eye to eye on what constitutes a reasonable amount of time spent on screens. They would like full access 24/7, without interference. Their dad and I would like to see their eyes sometimes. Rather than risk an argument this Mother’s Day weekend, my request was to go camping.

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This was a great hike in Stowe, Vermont! Maybe we’ll hike this weekend!

It’s not that I love camping. I don’t. It’s that I want to be with my family away from the lure of iPhones, and laptops (mine included) so badly that I will sleep on dirt. Happily. Whatever it takes.

We don’t camp a lot. We’ve got some basic equipment — sleeping bags, a tent, the trunk of our car — but we’re pretty inexperienced at this. Added to the circus this year is Maria, our new daughter I’ve told you about.

I told her we were going camping this weekend.

She said she’d like to go. And then: “Que es camping?” What’s camping?

My Spanish is pretty good, but I don’t know “tent” in Spanish. I fumbled through explanations and pantomime. I think I told her  camping is sleeping outside, under material, in a bag. And she still wants to come! We must be pretty fun.

We will show her what camping is: eating hot dogs and s’mores until you’re sick, playing games, cuddling in the cold, seeing a true night sky when the rock you are lying on keeps you awake all night, rising with the sun, and having only each other and the great outdoors to entertain us when we wake up.

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Kids having fun in nature. Be still my heart.

I look forward to the whole thing, and give thanks that it’s only one night.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Laura

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.

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Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.

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My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”

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We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.

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On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.

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Selfies in Caesarea.


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Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem

 

Boogieing on the Galilee

Boogieing on the Galilee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.

 

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My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.