Lessons from my Grandmother: You Have to Breathe

I walk through the neighborhood in what for me is an uncommon pose – earbuds in, sunglasses on, shunning the world. I’m listening to a meditation app I purchased months ago. I programmed it to remind me every morning to meditate, and I ignore it every day. I decide to try it again. I choose from its menu: Stress-reduction, Sleep, Gratitude, Happiness. I pick the last. Everyone can use some more happiness.

It’s sort of cheating to walk while meditating, I think, as the lady’s calm voice tells me to sit straight and close my eyes, but it’s what I’ve decided to do. The meditation lady can’t judge me; today’s 12 minutes of happiness are about self-love, and learning to stop self-criticizing and comparing. So there will be no judgment of my walking-while-meditating. Besides, I once heard that “walking meditation” is a thing, so I have cover.

It’s also likely cheating that I’m carrying letters to the mailbox, but multi-tasking makes me happier, so good for me. Still, my fingers can’t release and relax entirely until I drop those off. Once I release them, I concentrate more on my breath, and not getting hit by a car when I cross the street.

“Feel any physical discomforts in your body. And rather than wish them away, acknowledge them, be aware of them, send kindness to them. Breathe into them.”

I forget to breathe and instead consider that I’m generally happy enough, so maybe this meditation on “happiness” might be wasted. Maybe I should have picked a different category. Patience. Forgiveness.

But as I turn the corner past a gorgeous house, bigger and newer and for sure cleaner than mine, I realize that I have been judging myself, thus decreasing my happiness. I’ve been judging my frustration over my writing not flowing lately. The app lady isn’t saying “don’t feel frustrated,” I think she’s telling me not to judge myself for being frustrated, not to judge my writing being stuck. Embrace or accept the frustration. Let it be.

Hmm, I think I feel happier?

My grandmother had radiation treatments for a tumor in her jaw earlier this year. They were not easy, but the tumor was painful and keeping her from eating, so the treatment was necessary for her comfort. The treatments were twice a day.

Just getting out of her building, into and out of a car, and back again, twice in one day was a herculean task. Her attitude could have been, “Forget it, I surrender.” But instead she chose to face it: “If that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do.” I accompanied her a few times.

The waiting room of a radiation treatment clinic can remind you of what you have to be grateful for. As I sat waiting for my grandmother to be called, a 17-year-old boy in Nikes and a forty-something man in a black suit and kipah asked each other how radiation was going for each of them – it was the exhaustion they agreed was most difficult.

For Lilli, the most difficult part might have been going from seated in her wheelchair to lying on the metal platform. At home, she was often scared just to go from her wheelchair to the couch. Courage. Here, she  had to lie down on the cold, hard metal, no cushion, no pillow – no guardrails. They placed a hard plastic mask shaped to her face over her, and she had to stay motionless while the platform ascended closer, closer to the source of the radiation that would hopefully give her more time, with less pain. She was allowed to drape over her a small, soft, blanket knitted by Marni.

I had more than once been in dark movie theaters with Lilli, when she was the only person in the audience to scream out in fear when a slightly startling event took place. Stillness, quietness, in the face of fear was not her natural state.

The two radiation technicians treated her respectfully and tenderly. She was no doubt afraid. Of falling off. Of being zapped with radiation. Of cancer. Of dying. But she did not complain or cry. She did not ask “why me.” She did what had to be done.

They called me back in when the treatment ended.  The two technicians were helping her into the wheelchair.

“The key is meditating,” she said to all of us. “You have to breathe.”

She would be back later that day. The tumor would shrink enough to give her more comfort, more time. To give us all more time. And maybe a few more lessons in happiness.


Ballroom Dancing circa 2002


Laughing with all 7 great-grandchildren, Oct 2015.





Breathe in the New Year

Never have we needed a new year like we do now.

Summer’s blessing of an unhurried pace is already forgotten. We have reverted to our scheduled-beings ways: Wake up. Get dressed. Make lunches. Kiss goodbyes. Go.

Go go go.

In the car, I check the news radio for breathless reports of hurricanes and earthquakes. Over breakfast, I read the L.A. Times’  latest science on earthquake forecasting. I carry the anxiety of the bystander as I prepare for doomsday. I buy gallons of water and canned food. I buy candy, because if you’re eating Chef Boyardee and diced peaches, you deserve as much chocolate and red vines as you can get your hands on. I buy flashlights, and work gloves, and put sneakers in arm’s reach of everyone’s bed.

I need to breathe. I downloaded a meditation app a month ago. Every morning my phone gently reminds me “It’s time to meditate,” and every morning I promptly and consistently…ignore it. Ten minutes? Maybe later.

My kids need to breathe. They’re stressed, beyond the norm. Okay, I put on the app during breakfast as background sounds of trickling water and birdsong plays. We take a deep breath.

Ahh. That felt good.

The Jewish new year is like the app, trying to break through my day and schedule, and “I’ll get to it later’s” — a gentle reminder I have to choose to accept: Take a deep breath, it says.

I do. I will. Ahh, feels good.

Happy new year. Love, Laura

(You can read my new year’s posts from last year , 2013 and 2009, and reprinted below)


2016: “The Only Three Words You Need”

Every year I go to Rosh Hashanah services with expansive hope, born out by experience, that some wisdom and truth from our tradition will land softly on my heart and I will take it with me through the next year as comfort and north star.

For me, the wisdom and truth I longed for this year came in a brief comment by our rabbi. She mentioned that the author Anne Lamott has written there are only three prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow. This became my simple and complete prayer. I stood with my eyes closed and silently repeated these words instead of the pages of prayers in my hands. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.”

There it was, instantly. A physical transformation, a steady flow of peace. Thank you thank you thank you thank you — for this loving, brilliant man standing by my side; for the blossoming young man next to him; for the kind, curious boy at home nursing a cold while watching (inappropriate) cartoons. Thank you thank you thank you thank you. And for the challenges I have to face, Help me help me help me help me.

I do love December 31st, how we light up the darkest night sky with twinkly lights and candles and fireworks. And I love our Jewish New Year’s Eve in Autumn, when there’s still enough light to see the world by, to embrace it and thank it for its beauty, its blue sky above brown California mountain ridges, its temperate Pacific waves tumbling toward me as I gather up my burdens and transfer them to a handful of bread crumbs or shells and let them fly into the ocean.

For all of this, the gratitude and the challenges, the beauty of these people and this earth, the final prayer…Wow.

Sunset 1

2013: “Ancient History and Two Hours Ago”

Dear Rabbi Reuben,

This time of year always gets me. I don’t think of myself as religious, but there I am in services. Liking services. Needing services.

I sing along (mostly) with the Hebrew prayers, even though I don’t understand all of them, even though what I do understand I don’t always agree with. There is something in the familiarity of the rhythms and rhymes, the melodies and memories. Memories call me from when I was twelve, sitting in a row of other 12-year-old girls required to attend Shabbat services as part of our Bat Mitzvah year. I think about my son studying for his Bar Mitzvah now, and I feel peace and wonder knowing that he is learning these prayers not only for one Shabbat morning in February, but for the decades of Shabbats that will hopefully follow. He need not realize that these melodies and prayers will stay with him, guide him, fill him with love and hope whenever he may need it, years from now or next week.

I suppose these prayers were with me before I was twelve. They were there when Rabbi Winokur handed me my pre-school diploma, they were embedded in our three-year-old voices singing, “The animals, they came on, they came on in twosies twosies, elephants and kangaroosies roosies!”

The prayers have been there, if it’s not too time-travel-mystic of me, since my parents were dragged to “make an appearance” in their grandparents’ Orthodox shuls in Boyle Heights and Pico/Fairfax, where they heard unintelligible, unpenetrable Hebrew chanting. And so on.

There are prayers I don’t say. That don’t bring me peace. Like the one that proclaims “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” I don’t buy that literal God-writing business. But there I am in services anyway, because you add your spin, that these words remind us that all we have is today. That all the good we are going to do in the world should happen right now.

Next we arrive at a prayer listing the traits of God – compassion and forgiveness and kindness and mercy. This prayer sends my mind back two hours, to my younger son’s loss of composure this morning when asked (okay, ordered) to turn off the television because he had already watched a cartoon and it was time to play or get dressed. I think of the heat and anger that consumed him, the words that came out of his mouth directed at me, the stormy damage he caused to his room when sent there to cool down. For some reason today I stayed cool, too, let him settle into whatever books he uncovered in the process of forgetting what it was he was so angry about.

After a little while, I brought him his clothes for temple (he loves to dress up so this wasn’t a problem) and we spoke as though intemperate words had never been uttered. My forgiveness was my not asking for an apology, or bringing up the episode, which he knew was not his best moment. I dressed him and blessed him and his full of passion ways. Compassion and forgiveness and kindness and mercy.

I am grateful that my boys’ ears were in the presence of your words today – that attitude is everything. I hope they heard that everyone feels loss and disappointment, so they won’t feel so alone when it’s their turn. I am grateful for your emphasis on the value of showing up for people, and also what showing up means for participating in life. I am grateful that the sounds and words of our people’s prayers and melodies washed over them, as they sat bookended between my parents. I could turn and see them from a distance, they looked bigger, and my father’s hair grayer, than the images I hold of each of them in my mind. (My mother looked beautiful; that’s a constant.) I am grateful that these words and prayers and melodies were sinking into their depths in ways they may not consciously remember, but which they will no doubt access on some Rosh Hashanah many years from now, wherever their days may take them.

With love and appreciation for all these gifts,


2009: “Looking for Autumn at Low Tide”

We said goodbye to summer yesterday, again. The first one—the day before school started—didn’t take. My mind was still in pajamas. This goodbye was official. Equinox and all.

As a Sunday of lazing about moved toward evening, Christopher and I decided we’d go to the beach—where else to bid adieu to all things Summer? Our kids refused to come. Even Emmett was adamant: “I’d rather watch football than go to the beach!” he spat. Aaron concurred, disgusted by our proposal: “And I’d rather watch Elmo!”

Like angels conjured from our collective prayer, Grandparents materialized on our front porch, offering their time. I grabbed my flip flops and my man and we ran off.

The tide was low and we walked in wet sand, water gracing our toes. We saw the neighborhood Chabadniks praying the last of Rosh Hashanah, a towel-draped woman in a beach chair raising her martini glass, a toddler in soggy underwear rushing the ocean. All saying goodbye in their way. I stretched my arms wide toward the sunset. I resolved to shake the sand out of my brain and focus. Fall is here, time to hunker down.

It’s hard to tell it’s Autumn by looking out my window this morning. But if I pay attention: I see the sunshine casts its light on the blue tiled table from a longer angle. I feel the tickle in the back of my throat that warns the first cold is coming. I see dark purple leaves scattered on the grass.

I try to forget that this purple plum tree is dying. I know it is, but at least for the next few months its will have company.



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.


Seeing the Big (3-D Mammogram and Ultrasound) Picture

I brought a good book with me to the follow-up mammogram. Follow-up mammograms by definition are more worry-making than regular ones. You are there because something funky was going on, something needed a closer look. (FYI, the book I just had to keep reading was the forthcoming Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson (February 2016).)

I was doing a very good job of not freaking out. I had had a 3-D mammogram for the first time last week, and although my doctor had said they usually necessitate fewer follow ups, this one did. So what? I always think I’m special. So why should my breast tissue be common? Besides, I knew that whatever was or wasn’t there would be there or not there regardless if I freaked out in advance. If there was trouble brewing, I’d do plenty of freaking once I knew.

A nice technician named Fuschia led me to the changing room. It was the first cold Fall day, naturally, but the gown was a soft flannel. Nice touch. The facilities at St. John’s could almost be mistaken for a spa.

Almost, but not quite. She led me to the exam room. Brace yourself. At a follow-up mammogram they really really really squeeze the breast tissue as flat as they can to make sure that whatever they might have seen in the first picture is just breast tissue, or something that cannot be squeezed out of the picture. The spa feeling was gone. (I take that back — I once had a sports massage that was much more painful, and lasted longer).

After the mammogram they did an ultrasound, just to be extra sure. I hadn’t had one since I was pregnant. “Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked. “Everything looks good,” Fuschia replied. The doctor came in and looked, too. They said “see you next year” and I got dressed, paid for parking, and left. I had a day.

Last night my son awoke me with “I had the worst nightmare. You and Dad died.” He climbed into bed and we had the rarest kind of hug: one that he needed.

Here I am, a day later, yesterday’s appointment almost forgotten. And I stop myself, say “Pay attention.” Today could feel quite different. That mammogram could have set me on a different future. So I look at what I normally forget to see: Today, with all its potential for petty aggravations, for mindless running, for holding grudges, is a gift that I do not “deserve.” No day is earned.

Every day is bonus.

Life — even the longest — is too short. Love deeply. Forgive freely. Hug often. Savor mundane details. Play your music loud.

“How Do I Cherish Life More?” This Kid Wants to Know

Our fourth grader had a question: “How do I cherish life more? It goes by so fast. How do I slow it down?”

I don’t even know where to begin. Is this the mischief maker? The prankster who loves to break dance? He is all of the above. He is ten and he feels the speed that has taken him from baby to here.

This awareness isn’t new. He has longed for babyhood, toddlerhood, little-hood before. He has suffered through the realization of his own mortality. He gets that all this, that he himself, will not last. Now he says things like “cherish.” I’m so out of my league.

His father’s response: “Do me a favor. Just consider, a little bit, the idea of becoming a rabbi some day.”

And then, “Appreciate what blessings you have in your life, as often as possible.”

Yes to both from me.

And also, now that I’ve had time to consider, I would add:  Taste a strawberry verrry slowly. Look in my eyes for five seconds once a day. Stand in a patch of sunlight, close your eyes, and take a breath and feel it heat your skin.

I don’t need a clock or calendar to tell me time is passing too quickly. My 13-year-old son has outgrown his shoes from September, and he trick-or-treats without parental supervision. My niece fills out college applications, and new strands of white hair pop up on my head. These markers are more than enough clock and calendar to tell me that I need to cherish life more, too.

I step outside. It is a beautiful fall day. The rain last week washed our sky and I can still smell what it left behind — a sprouting blade of grass, a walk in search of puddles, a whopper of a double rainbow, and desperate hope for much more to come.