Halloween, in the Right Place

This is one of the days I love Venice.

It helps that the boys are in school again, after a week home sick. I had the house alone. It’s quiet. The TV is off. I can admire what we’ve created here. The cozy space, the ocean blue tiles, the sunlight and green trees filling the window that dominates the house.

But it’s not about the house, even. I felt it as I drove home from dropping Emmett off at school. So what was it that made me feel today that I was in the right place, right now? Was it the convenience of stopping at Staples on Lincoln to get ink cartridges? Was it the Thrift shop window next door with its small handmade signs offering Halloween Costumes for $5? Was it the slow cruising down Palm Avenue, the cool hipness of Abbot Kinney, then turning down our own palm-lined street with its cottages painted different colors, and creative landscapes, unique styles, the energy of the streets? It was this, and the cool air of Fall. The Halloween decorations, the cobwebs and pumpkins. The lack of mansions. I’m not saying there’s no pretense here; there is certainly a Venice attitude, and some days I feel perfectly outside it. Completely uncool. But today I’m riding its harmonic waves, on which modern attitude coexists with vintage charm, where there is something humble speaking up today, where bigger isn’t better.

It’s Halloween, and the kids are out from their sick beds just in time. Their friends live in other places, and kids like to trick or treat with friends. But a miracle has graced us; they’ve agreed to trick-or-treat with their family, probably for the last time, here in Venice. Maybe they think the candy is better here. Or maybe their brains are still scrambled from fever. Or maybe they are feeling good here today, too, like me. Who can explain the ups and downs of feeling like you’re in the right place at any given moment? It’s enough to know it.

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Give Thanks, Give Turkeys

A dozen volunteers hustled back and forth with groceries in their arms. Empty boxes filled the driveway and front yard of the small house cradled between the 105 and the 110 interchange. Taking care not to disturb their hosts’ carefully tended native plants, children and adults filled 125 boxes with groceries, to be delivered to hungry neighbors.

This scene has been replayed every month for fourteen years. On the last Sunday of the month, when many families in the neighborhood have empty pantries and are waiting for another pay day, the volunteers of “One on One Outreach” do their part to fill a need. The idea was the brainchild of the man at whose house we worked, who realized that his neighbors were going hungry.

I went this month with my husband, our seven-year-old son and fifteen-year-old niece. Alongside first-timers and veterans, we used our hands, arms, backs, legs and hearts. Like ants building a hill, we busied ourselves carrying this month’s assorted food and sundries, collected, sorted and stored each month by our host. Potatoes, plums and peaches. Bologna, granola bars and pistachios. Laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and baby powder.

I wondered how my seven-year-old would fare. It’s physical work –  two hours of lifting, bending, stuffing, organizing and checking that every box is complete. He became a boy on a mission. He carried gallons of juice down the long aisle of boxes, he saw to it that every box got a sack of potatoes, he ensured the plums would not be bruised. He grew three inches with the importance of his work.

We loaded the heavy boxes onto two pickup trucks, one suffering from time and use, the other shiny and sturdy. They cruised two short blocks, flimsy bungee cords miraculously holding boxes stacked six high. We followed on foot in the middle of the street (part of the fun for a seven year old).

We stopped at the first apartment building. One by one we carried boxes to appreciative families, until they were quickly gone.

My son and my niece, who have never known an empty pantry, or a refrigerator that couldn’t be restocked, glimpsed into the apartments and lives of people not born with that same gift. Overhearing his dad describing to me how many people were crammed into one particular apartment, our son said softly, hopefully, “But they have a happy life.” Noticing a courtyard of grass and cement, he said, “They have a lot of room to play outside.”

I wondered how to frame my response. Like all of us, he was trying to make sense of what he saw, of the disparity between his circumstances and those of the kids in front of him. I didn’t want him to feel pity, but empowerment and action. And while it’s true that anyone can be happy or sad — rich or poor — it’s a lot easier to be happy when your tummy is full. I thought of the tantrum my son threw two nights earlier, when he didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. I let his observation stand. “That’s true,” I said, “there’s lots of room to play.”

The next night would be Halloween, but in contrast to our neighborhood, there were few decorations. Our host and one of his neighbors are the only ones who hand out candy, he told me, and the kids just go back and forth between the two houses until they run out. He showed me boxes of treats stacked by his front door, ready for trick-or-treaters. “I usually hand out about a thousand,” he said.

We had promised our son one more trip to buy Halloween decorations, so after we finished, we headed back to West L.A to do that. We dropped twenty bucks on things that, despite my best intentions, will likely be thrown away or lost before next year – cotton spider webs, plastic bones, a kitty cat tail.

On Halloween, we accepted a friend’s invitation to join her in Malibu Colony. We passed through guarded gates to beachside mansions professionally decorated in elaborate ghoulish fashion. Up and down the street, generous hosts handed out fistfuls of candy or full-size candy bars. One offered an open bar and encouraged donations to UNICEF. All around us were revelers enjoying the decadent night, filling up on empty calories and joy.

“Twenty-four hours ago we were handing out groceries,” my husband reminded me, as we sat on the deck of a beach house listening to the ocean. It felt like much longer. Good thing we only have to wait until the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our next opportunity. “Bring gloves,” we were advised. “Those frozen turkeys get really cold.”

We will be there. Maybe you will, too.

Donate frozen turkeys to One on One Outreach, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades, 16019 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades. Frozen turkeys will be collected there November 13, 14 and 15, and November 18. Contact me with questions.

What’s your favorite way to help others? Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition? Please share it.

More than we wished for.

What could be better than to be eight years old, out at dark, running with friends, getting candy door to door. Not much. Except, perhaps, being five years old and permitted to tag along. Or being their mother, trailing with glass of wine in hand.

Halloween did not disappoint. At first I goofed. Forgot my cup. But a friend at one house on our rounds handed me the glass of wine out of her hand. I took it, not so much because I needed wine on this sweet night, but because I needed to know if the rumours were true. And knowing this friend, it was bound to be good wine. She did not disappoint.

Barely thirty minutes into the candy march, our boys surprised us by telling us they were done. Done? I asked. Done, they answered: their bags were too heavy; they had enough candy; they had had enough of it all. They wanted to go home. Proof, as though I needed more, that they are not me.

Their father was delighted. The World Series was on. Phillies vs. Yankees. Father vs. Sons. The boys poured their candy on the floor and straddled their bounty as the Phillies struggled. They arranged, sorted, counted, traded, and consumed. They put away a few lonely rejects. They graced their parents’ palms with one or two good ones. Such good boys. The one with a tummy ache and heavy eyelids went upstairs for a bath, while his father and older brother watched baseball and monitored the doorbell.

Different treats awaited upstairs: a heated bathroom, oversized plush towels, clean brushed teeth, feet pajamas. But then a protest, “I’m not going to bed until Aaron does.” I picked up those fifty pounds of my baby, entered his bedroom though his hands grabbed the doorframe, and sat with him in the rocking chair. I offered a memory as a distraction, “Did you know that when you were a baby, we used to sit in this chair, and I would rock you and sing you songs and you would fall asleep?” He was listening still, so I kept rocking and began to sing.

Twinkle twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are . . . Shelter us beneath your wings, oh Lord on high . . . Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly . . . If you want to sing out sing out, and if you want to be free be free . . . I could have stayed there all night, singing my wishes for him. I stayed longer than I needed to. Then I pulled his blankets back with my outstretched toes, and slipped him onto his bed.

Downstairs, they continued to monitor baseball and trick or treaters. The eight year old treated “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with as much reverence as he did the pitches, hits and outs. Maybe more. He sang along, stopping to comment to his father about the operatic singer in military uniform,“He has a beautiful voice.” I was surprised he would notice. They sang together, “For its root root root for the Phillies,” and I was caught off guard again; could he be rooting for his father’s home team at last? “No,” he explained. “It’s a Phillies home game. I always sing the home team’s name.”

The singing ended, the baseball resumed, the doorbell rang. He ran to get it. “39 Dad!” he exclaimed running back to the game. He was counting the number of kids coming to our door, hoping for 40.

It was a magical night. Candy, friends, a Yankees win. And 47 kids seeking sweets at our door. He got more than he wished for.