Rituals – Intended and Accidental

The Jewish New Year prompts the annual introspection: how to love our imperfect selves?

Imperfect challah…tastes about like it looks.

Last year at this time, we were taking steps to re-emerge from the pandemic. For me, that meant sending my kids back to in-person high school and college. I’m not gonna lie; it was bittersweet. I liked having my babies close.

On the eve of that transition, we sat around our dining room table and I said, Before we eatI want to do something.

I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary over the last 18 months, before we rushed headlong into the next season of our lives without a breath. I needed a ritual to close that time, in order to welcome what was coming next — a “new abnormal,” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.

So that night I had scrounged and found four half-melted candles in the kitchen’s junk drawer and anchored them to the bottom of a glass jar with their own melted wax. I know: better humans than I would have thought ahead, bought new candles, maybe even placed them in real candleholders, and set a vase of flowers in the center, with a carefully crafted playlist humming in the background. While I admire and appreciate people who make those efforts, touches that make everyone feel special, that is not me. When I get an idea, I ruminate on it for a while, reject it, change my mind at the last minute and decide to commit to it, and then scramble to make it happen. I am who I am.

Gathered around the dining room table, I said, I thought that each of us could light a candle and say something, whatever you want, maybe a wish or hope for the new year. Anything.

I expected double eye rolls; they did not come. I guess my family needed something like this, too.

I lit the first candle and said to my boys, “I am so proud of how you weathered this strange and unprecedented time. You’ve shown resilience and humor, in addition to grief and mourning.”

Around the table, we each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. I do not know if my little ritual changed anything measurable, but it gave us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.

Rituals are a necessary part of the human condition.

I have been thinking about rituals this week we celebrate the High Holidays. On Erev Rosh Hashanah last week, our rabbi spoke with utmost gratitude to his mother, who made sure that his family knew without fail that every Friday at 6 pm, they would be gathered around the Shabbat table.

As I thought about my own family’s haphazard Shabbat rituals, I felt that familiar second-guessing, comparing-mind, regret rising in my belly — if only I had done that better! I really meant to and now it’s too late!

In a perfect world, I would have created a beautiful and reliable Shabbat ritual for my family. My kids would have come home to the smell of fresh Challah baking, roasted chicken, and potatoes in the oven. Not only did I not possess the domestic discipline to plan ahead, but I also lacked the iron will to enforce that weekly ritual against the competing interests of flag football practices, basketball games; or social events of our own. Rather than make a beautiful, attendance-mandatory dinner each Friday night, I made the decision that keeping my kids from doing what they loved because of Judaism — was the surefire way to kill any fondness for those rituals and create a lifelong resentment to carry forward into the next generation

I sometimes wonder, like when the Rabbi is talking about his treasured childhood memories of Shabbat each week — what rituals will my kids keep? Which will they pass down? Which will they abandon? Which have I taught them, and which have I unwittingly handed down?

One ritual I love is casting away regrets.

One of my favorite rituals is Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of sins. I did not encounter this ritual until I was an adult (which feels important to remember as I flay myself for failing to instill rituals in my kids). I love Taschlich both because it involves being in nature and because it is about letting go of regrets.

Lucky to live by the ocean, in our community we gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, symbolically casting our “sins” into the ocean. As I throw the seeds toward the water, I think about the qualities and feelings I want to shed, and the thought and the physicality of it make me feel lighter, at least for the day.

Last year, I cast away fear. I let go of washing groceries when I came home from the market, and of reminding my sons to wash their hands the second they walked in the door. I cast away the grief of seeing caution tape wound around monkey bars. I cast away having my kids home and the false comfort of thinking I could protect them. I cast away the clenching and shrinking we had had to do then.

This year, I stood at the edge of the ocean thinking about what to let go of. The same stuff as always comes up (hello, worry, you old friend!), along with the unnamed boulders that keep me from lifting higher. Maybe regret.

My son called from his college town while I was there. He had not been to services, but he and his girlfriend had taken a hike on a trail they had never been on before.

“I told her about Tashlich.”

To be honest, I was surprised he knew the word.

“We took two rocks each,” he said, “and threw them off the mountain. One for something we wanted to let go of and one for something we hoped would come in the year.”

My heart filled. He had taken a ritual I love and had never consciously taught him, and made it his own. Like my half-melted candles, he had improvised and made a meaningful moment and shared it with someone he loved.

What will our kids take from us? What will they pass along to someone new?

Maybe what my kids have learned from my omissions, my failure to impose order and instruct them in perfect rituals and maxims, is that there is room in our traditions for them to draw out meaning. That perfection is not the goal, but the intention you bring. That what matters is showing up with what you may cobble together, and marking the moment.

So what if I did not keep an iron grasp on my family’s Friday nights, as tradition proscribed? I gave us what we needed, the freedom from “must do’s” that pinched rather than added joy; the value of adaptability; and a core faith that the bonds of family — built on trust, stability, and presence — were built all week long in a million other ways.

It would take centuries, and a truckload of birdseed to cast every regret and moment of second-guessing into the sea. A handful a year is a good start.

It is Friday afternoon as I write this. Wishing you a peaceful and perfection-free day of rest.


Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow her on MediumFacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Counting on Thanksgiving.

Last year, we held a placeholder Thanksgiving, an empty day where there should have been a crowd, a marker to keep the tradition going.

It worked. Thanksgiving is on.

My parents traditionally have hosted our extended family on Thanksgiving. (And by “my parents” I mean: my mother invites, counts heads, arranges flowers, rents tables and chairs, sets out nuts and cheese and crackers, and used to cook the turkey and stuffing, now outsourced to our friend Chef Ike; and my dad warmly toasts her efforts.)

Suffice to say my mom still does a lot. In fact, she would be forgiven if in recent years she has been silently tiring of it (to be clear, total supposition on my part), perhaps counting down to a handoff of the responsibility. But for 2021 she is recharged, revving and raring to go, thrilled to have it back. It is a parallel energy to a certain high schooler I know who looked forward to returning to school after having been locked with his parents for more than a year. Things we grow tired of and take for granted, we appreciate anew.

Full disclosure: I am pretty sure my Dad is less revved about having a crowd of people inside their house, even his favorite people. But he is going along for the ride.

Thank you, Mom, for making it happen. Thank you, Dad, for allowing it to happen, despite the fact that there is more than 0% risk (I see you). Thank you vaccines for making gathering again possible. Thank you grandparents and great-grandparents for setting the example of prioritizing family. Thank you parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, spouses, children for following them. Thank you rituals. Thank you fall, and cloudy skies. Thank you red leaves, wherever you may be.

Maybe it is too soon to be grateful. Thanksgiving is four weeks — a lifetime — away. We know life takes turns we do not want or expect. But can it ever be “too soon to be grateful?” Impossible. What we can be grateful for is what we have now — the idea of the gathering to come, the sweet anticipation, the energy it swirls in us, all of which is present this very moment.


Last year’s piece, “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.

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!

This is Marriage. This is 18. This is Life.

We had planned a quiet anniversary celebration, since the school board transformed what used to be a summer night into a school night a few years ago.

Our first anniversary was a trip with friends to Hawaii.

Our third was a walk to a park with our baby in a stroller.

Our fourth through seventeenth…well, who can recall the details? A few dinners, a few nights with sick children, a few vacations, a search through my mind’s records would likely reveal.

But our eighteenth anniversary will be remembered as the day we got our first puppies. Two.

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Officially I have lost my mind.

After years of saying no, I felt ready for a dog. A single dog. We discussed this in May, decided to wait until the end of summer, when travels were done. And then today our friend brought over four puppies for us to choose from.

puppies

The cuteness was the problem. How to choose? Add to that so many voices– the friend giving them away, my mother-in-law, my sons, my nieces, even my husband — insisting that a single dog would be lonely without a companion.

I tried using the rational mind: “Most people we know with dogs have just one dog.” And “My mental health is more important than the dog’s mental health.” But the rational mind does not always win. Because, remember, the cuteness.

When it was time for the woman with the puppies to go, pressure was applied. But it didn’t take that much. And now we have two dogs.

And so an 18th anniversary becomes trip to the pet store for supplies. Becomes friends coming over to see the new puppies. Becomes nieces coming back and back again to cradle the pups. Becomes an uncle coming to visit. Becomes my sons trying out names and playing with them and cleaning up after them, and feeding them and getting pillows for their bedtime crate. Become my incredulous parents popping by to wish us a happy anniversary. Becomes an impromptu barbeque, and opening a bottle of champagne and Martinelli’s cider, which had been cooling in the refrigerator since last year.

If ever there is a time to uncork some celebration, this is it. This is 18 years of marriage. Kids. Family. Friends. Blessings abounding. And, now, dogs.

This is life: Full and overflowing, throwing some caution to the wind, saying yes.

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Watching Olympics is more fun in a group.

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Let’s hope this lasts all night…?

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for Purple Swords and Pratfalls

I come home from the market and see a purple foam sword lying on the just mowed lawn. It is a prop, along with an orange nerf gun, green ninja discus, and plastic machete, in a movie that four 11-year-old boys are making. I’m not sure what this flick is rated, but knowing one of the actor/writer/directors pretty well, I’d say it’s a safe bet that it’s PG for some violence. And, okay, mildly offensive language.

And something about this makes my soul smile.

A soul needs to smile.

I don’t know if it’s real or it’s only my perception, but it seems that our younger son and his friends have a certain innocence and openness to imaginary play that had already been abandoned by his older brother and his peers at the same age. The older boys were all sports all the time at 11 years old, which can be wonderful, but that passion can lend itself to trash talk and alpha male preening, in some instances. Give me sword-fighting and pratt falls any day.

Meanwhile on the lawn, the boy holding the camera calls action. Another boy aims a nerf bow and arrow, and releases its projectile toward a third boy. “You missed!” the target says. They fall down laughing.

It is May already. Next month these boys will graduate from elementary school, and two months later they will enter middle school. I know things will change. I’m not naive.

But I’m hopeful.

I pray for them to maintain enough innocence that they will still make movies, that nerf guns and green frisbees will still unleash their imaginations, that they will still play together unselfconsciously on a perfect spring afternoon, and that the only “drama” will be the storylines they create for the big screen.

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Watching dailies of their scene.

Time traveling, to the present.

I know how to time travel. I do it all the time. Backwards: I see a spot on the sidewalk near my home and remember a morning more than a decade old, when I sat down, pregnant and exhausted, to wait out a three-year-old’s tantrum and cry my own tears. Forward: four more years until my firstborn goes to college.

Then what you want to do is close ranks.

You want to hold your growing children close, and you want to do more than freeze time, you want to push time backwards, squish them back to being almost 4 and 7, and not almost 11 and 14, and yourself not 46. 46! You want to hear only their giggles, not their fights. You want to hold the best moments, the photo of them jumping from bed to bed, the older son catching the younger, airborne and naked and laughing. You want to thread yourselves together, beads on a string — mother-father-son-son, the four of you only, connected and always.

And then you want to do the right thing. You want to say to the mother of the girl who is alone, I will take care of her, of course I will. She can join us, she can break our circle, let the beads fall off the string, rearrange them. And so you do, and you grieve for what you think you’ve lost. And you marvel at the new design, different, but not lesser. And you try to hold the present.

Lost in Translation

It was the vehemence of the assault that surprised me. The attacker: my son. His weapon: my birthday cake.

My birthday was last week. With Maria in our family now, I knew this year would be different than the usual last-minute birthday cards. Birthday celebrations in Guatemala have unique traditions, which I learned about one afternoon during a front yard soccer game a few days before my husband’s birthday.

Maria, who had joined our family two weeks earlier, called me over and whispered in Spanish, “I have an idea for Christopher’s birthday. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m….” Wow, I thought, is she going to prepare a feast for when he awakes two hours later? She’s amazing! “And I’ll wake up the boys at 4 a.m.,” she continued, “and we’ll come into your room at 4 a.m. and sing songs and pour ice water on him!” Her face was overtaken by a huge smile.

Which I had to snuff out, even if it was culturally insensitive. “No. No way. Do NOT do that. He will not like that.” She took the note, and instead made a huge, colorful birthday banner, taped to the dining room wall after he went to bed. Lovely. Two weeks later, we celebrated my older son’s birthday in a similar way. No middle of the night birthday anarchy. I had protected them from this particular cultural exchange.

Cue my birthday. I had seen hints that Maria and the boys were at work on an art project, heard giggling and whispers, and was happy the three of them were getting along so well. On the morning of my birthday, I woke up to the sounds of them scampering about. I felt content, not only because I knew there was something special planned for me, but because this experiment of welcoming a stranger into our family was succeeding beyond my wildest dreams. I had never expected my boys to come to love Maria, nor so quickly.

At 6:30 a.m. Maria and the boys entered our bedroom. Aaron held a beautiful cake that read “Happy Birthday Laura” in flowing red icing script, and candle flames lit the dark bedroom. Maria held an iPad playing “Happy Birthday” in mariachi style. Emmett held a camera, recording the moment. I felt loved and appreciated.

I made my wish, and then I blew out my candles. Before I could inhale my next breath, I was inhaling my cake and my son’s fist behind it. He pushed the entire quarter-sheet cake up onto my chest and chin. That was their plan. Ha ha ha. Feliz cumpleanos.

But my 14-year-old kept going. He grabbed the cake and shoved it at my head. Cake flew everywhere: on me, my pillow, the bed, the floor, the rug. When he finally stopped, the cake was destroyed. I was crestfallen. Either he had misunderstood Maria’s instructions and innocently taken it too far, or he had become overcome by aggression over every fight about too much screentime.

It felt like the latter — “Does he hate me that much?” I wondered. I tried not to cry. The kids sort of helped Christopher clean up. I got in the shower. Though I tried not to let it, it colored the rest of my day, a charcoal hue that came with me on a hike underneath otherwise blue skies. I tried to shake it off. By day’s end, we had moved on, and eaten the entire cake.

A few days have passed, and I’ve recovered from the hurt feelings. I still don’t know if the intensity of the cake attack was motivated by suppressed anger, or the thrill of permission to run amok. I look for a lesson regardless, something to salvage.

Perhaps it is this: I have entered the era of Mother to an Adolescent. There will be friction and misunderstandings, disagreements and disputes. But at the end of the day, we come together. We share the ample sweetness there is, in all its delicious imperfection.

birthday cake

How to See Miracles

My grandmother Lilli Diamond has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.

How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)

Braces, Round One, were removed from my 4th grader today.

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Exultation! But just for a while.

A second round is sure to come two years from now. That’s how they do it nowadays: Expand their jaw with a torture device that requires parental “cranking,” to make us complicit; smack braces on the widened mouth; remove braces; allow one week respite before a retainer that will become the subject of anxiety dreams involving naked dumpster diving (we’re always naked in anxiety dreams); after the last baby teeth fall out and adult ones grow in, apply Braces Round Two.

This is progress.

If you are my child’s grandparents or teacher please skip the next sentence. I intentionally scheduled today’s orthodontist appointment to start when recess ended. I let him miss instructional time instead of play time.

I have my reasons. One night last week, the 4th grader, lying on his bed in the honest hour, that twilight moment after lights out when truth is told to parents, said, “My body feels so much stress. My head and my heart are filled with stress. It’s not good for your heart, right?” Even his stress was stressing him.

What could a 4th grader (with one of the nicest teachers in the school, no pandering) feel stressed about?

Maybe it was transitioning from summer. Maybe it was the quizzes he had to catch up on after missing two days of school for a family Bat Mitzvah in Pennsylvania. Maybe it was missing his dogs, who live in Pennsylvania because they are actually his grandparents’ dogs. He does have a beautiful relationship with Bucket and Bumper. Like human long distance relationships, it’s all honeymoon, no day-to-day dreary logistics, like poop gathering or vomit cleaning.

So maybe he was sad or stressed by those things? I don’t know. What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. When given the option, it was an easy choice to protect recess.

Don’t think I haven’t reminded him multiple times of what I did for him. I get a lot of “meanest mom!” flung my way; I’m going to milk this as long as I can.

STOMP your heart out

This is totally how we sweep around my house.

Of course not. This is STOMP, which I saw for the first time when I wasn’t all that much older than  my kids are now. It blew my mind when I saw it. Nothing had ever been so downright funky-to-the-beat, imagination-en-fuego as this. It is deservedly an international juggernaut of a show, with permanent companies running in London and New York.

It has been in L.A. before and I’ve missed it. Not this time — I’m taking my boys this Wednesday (yes, a school night, yes, a test the next day), and I cannot wait to watch their minds blown. Especially my budding drummer. There is a chance that I will be the most excited of all of us, that I will embarrass them by shrieking like the Beatles are on stage. All I can say is, that’s a chance I’m willing to take. Look out kitchen drawers, look out mops and buckets, look out whatever we will get our hands on.  It’s gonna be epic.

 

STOMP

Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. (near La Cienega) Beverly Hills

Tuesday, December 17 to Sunday, January 5

http://www.stomponline.com