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.

 

 

Will Leaders Listen to Hungry Women? #Women15

Women are starving on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. How is it possible that news of eight women on a hunger strike for a livable minimum wage escaped my notice?

If you also haven’t heard, I’ll fill you in. On April 16, several women began a fifteen day fast to demand immediate action to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

What’s the urgency? In a letter addressed to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. City Council, written on the fifth day of their fast, they explained:

LA Women 15 snapshot

Women comprise a high percentage of minimum wage workers, and many are the sole parent or earner. As the fasting women wrote to L.A.’s leaders, “Women’s equality means raising the wage to nothing less than $15 so we can truly afford child care, prevent family evictions, and fully participate in the workforce.”

Put another way: if you care about alleviating hunger and homelessness, about ensuring that children have quality day care and are ready to learn when they go to school, implement a livable minimum wage. The rest gets solved.

Some argue that a $15 minimum wage is a job killer. But competing studies support each side’s position. The only thing we do know with 100% certainty is that our current situation is failing. People are hungry. Family homelessness is rising. Multiple families live together in garages. Even full-time wage earners qualify for and receive government assistance. That last fact should galvanize everyone, from liberal to liberatarian. Reliance on government support depresses not only the economy, it dampens the spirit. In the California Department of Social Services offices recently, I witnessed men and women and children wait for hours to meet with case workers in order to continue receiving adequate funds for food and rent. It amounts to mountains of wasted time, frustration, and indignity, instead of hours working for dignified wages.

Yes, there are details to be worked out Should tips be included? Should small businesses be excluded? Our leaders have decisions to make. But one thing should be settled: the urgency and need for immediate action for low-wage workers is real. City leaders should act as though it is the size of their paychecks at stake. That it is their family’s pantry that is empty.

L.A. may be behind the curve compared with our sister cities of Seattle, SeaTac, San Francisco, Oakland, who have adopted a higher minimum wage, but I, for one, believe L.A.’s leaders have the courage, compassion, and vision to accept the challenge.

Women Fast for 15

Thoughtful, respectful comments and dialogue are appreciated.

Laura