Lesson from the check-out line: Spread Joy

This time my prophet appeared in the form of a Trader Joe’s cashier.

Let’s call him AJ. He was chatting with the cute young woman in front of me, and their conversation continued after she had paid and her groceries were bagged.

I felt aggravation bubbling up. I took a deep, patient breath. I decided to notice the sweetness in their conversation, to wonder if this moment would be the one they would tell their future children about — how Daddy handed Mommy his phone number on a bent and dusty business card.

They finished talking after about 10 seconds, probably less, and he began ringing up my purchases. I was proud of myself for not wasting energy on harrumphing. He was one of those “How are you? I’m great, I’m super, what a blessed day” type of guys. As he started ringing up my purchases, he offered up his personal M.O.: “I wake up in the morning and decide ‘Today going to be great.’ No matter what happens, you have to decide that.” He explained, as he bagged my frozen taquitos and smoked mozzarella, that with this attitude, even if he has a car accident, it won’t ruin his day. It’s just part of his day.

His attitude dovetailed with my new resolution to laugh more. To lighten up. I tend toward the serious. Even my gratitude is serious – for the absence of all the baaaaad things that can happen. My motivation for the new attitude is my kids; I want their idea of me to be fun and laughing, not worried and cranky. I have precious few years left to imprint their childhood memories.

This happy-gas effort has been working, though it takes some mindfulness to counter my default “serious” outlook.

Let’s be clear, I have nothing against seriousness – it is requisite for significant social change. I mean, we have to presume that America’s Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were serious people, who were never heard to utter, “Let’s not worry about equal rights! Turn up the music and pass the cupcakes!” Seriousness of purpose has a place. But I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

The day after AJ, I heard the same message at Torah study. Even though the weekly portion was about skin eruptions. 

I will spare you the gorey details and cut to the chase. Rabbi Amy Bernstein showed us a little rabbi trick she had learned, because rabbis like to play with language and meaning. She took the Hebrew word for blemish, moved its letters around, and turned it into the Hebrew word for joy. Whether you see a blemish or joy, she suggested, depends on your perspective.

Joy blooms when you look for it. The sages knew it. AJ knew it. And, just like certain skin eruptions, joy can spread to people around you, be they your kids, your spouse, or the lady in the check-out line.

Be careful. It’s catching.

 

Philadelphia, Stories

When I was a student at Penn, most of my activities were limited to a square 1/2 mile of its West Philly campus — classes, rehearsals, libraries, parties. Occasionally I ventured downtown. There was the (impressive but ineffective) rally for Michael Dukakis in front of City Hall. There was my weekly SEPTA ride to an internship at the Women’s Law Project. And there was lovely, leafy Rittenhouse Square, an area I had no particular business in, but which appealed to my west coast eyes and ears with its older, sophisticated sensibility.

Flash forward (ahem) years to 2015, and I walked up to the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square to see its window filled with my first novel. BN Window

It’s hard to put that feeling into words. I’ll try, and then I’ll let the pictures tell the tale.

When I graduated from Penn and returned home to Los Angeles, I could not have known that some day I would marry a boy from Pennsylvania, that his family would become my extended family, and that they would be some of my biggest supporters. Time passes so swiftly that I can sometimes forget I’m not a “newcomer” still, that I’ve known them nearly 19 years.

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My Philadelphia PR team (and cousins) extraordinare, Sharla Feldscher of SFPR…

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…and PR maven and super cousin Hope Horwitz of SFPR.

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Happy happy joy joy.

Philadelphia book signing!

Suzanne Myers from Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Philadelphia joined us, accepting a donation to the agency from book sales that evening.

Deborah Waxman

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College, was in attendance!

I talked about the connections between Shelter Us and the values Jewish Family & Children’s Services represents, helping others, welcoming the stranger. One woman pointed out that being “a stranger” does not always refer to the stereotypical outsider I’d referred to — a homeless person, an immigrant — and that money can mask stranger status. She choked up. I did, too.

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I kinda see my Dad’s face in my expression.

At Q&A time, my son asked: “Did you ever have doubts about some of the things you included in the book?”

Yes, I answered. Doubt abounds. But when the time came to finish, I had to let it be. I hope I modeled something for him and his brother. To follow elusive dreams. To celebrate achievements. And to be grateful for the people who celebrate with you.

My favorite readers.

My favorite readers.

Thank you, thank you, one and all.

Humbly yours,

Laura/Mom.

Behind the scenes of Shelter Us

I thought I’d share some “behind the scenes” of how my debut novel, Shelter Us, evolved from first draft to final form. Today’s tidbit: Torah study.

What’s that? You heard me.

After I had completed the first draft and was working sloooowly on revising, I began attending Torah study with Rabbi Amy Bernstein, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, a progressive and all-around awesome place. (Her podcasts are here.)

Every week in Torah study we read and dissected ancient stories, and found connections to modern human foibles, habits, and yearnings — both personal and universal. What surprised me about Torah study, and what kept me coming back, was twofold: how relevant it was — how much I learned from it as a parent, a friend, a citizen. And how completely beautiful its purpose — to inspire humans toward becoming our best selves, all the while recognizing hey, we’re only human.

So nuts and bolts, how did this affect Shelter Us? Well, the first draft already had Sarah meeting and reaching out to Josie, a young homeless mother. (Obviously, my good Jewish Tikkun Olam training had already seeped into the plot.) But I went back and deepened Sarah’s motivation for doing that, deciding to make her late mother a Jewish convert, someone who often modeled the most important Jewish value: Remember we were strangers; welcome and take care of the stranger.

There more I think about it, the more Jewish values I find infused in Shelter Us, from its title, to the idea of passing values from one generation to the next, to the role of ritual, and even to the biggie: beliefs about God. And the more questions there are to explore.

  • How do you continue to learn and grow, be it philosophy, spirituality or history or something else?
  • Have you found yourself more or less drawn to religion or spirituality as you’ve gotten older?

Thanks for reading. Any questions you’d like answered? Feel free to ask in a comment, or contact me. More to come soon!

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.