Why This Mom Relaxes into Summer When the End is Near

Around our town the burgeoning sound of children’s protest and despair can be heard rising up toward the burnt July sky, as they realize that with the arrival of August, we are dangerously close to the first day of school, bearing down like a runaway freight train too close to stop before it smashes us. If the stewards of your school district also have decreed that summer ends mid-August, then you too have heard these sounds, the “why oh why’s” and the “woe is me’s” with which I fully concur; school should start in September.

But the calendar is also why I have finally relaxed into the pace of unscheduled lazy summer days. I did not have either the foresight, spine, or budgetary willingness to sign my kids up for endless camps. So with me working from home, they were left to their own devices — really, they were left alone to interact only with their devices, if only I would leave them alone. You must know that means the first half of summer featured ample nagging on my part. (Me: “Go play!” Them: “We are playing!” Me: “I meant outside!” Them: “Where’s the extension cord?”) I kid.

But with only two weeks left, I can let go! Now it’s not weeks of this conflict stretching before me, it’s mere days. So I surrender to days that have no goals or plans besides waking up and staying in pajamas until at long last someone must walk the dogs or go to the market because we are hungry. Days that are not filled with unique enriching activities, but if I’m lucky have been sprinkled with boogie boarding and soccer at the beach, water balloons or card games. And days that are filled with, yes, truly countless hours of xBox and YouTube videos. And I think, what was I so worried about? Will I remember to relax when next summer comes?

For now, August is upon us. There are only two weeks left. Have a great summer.

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.

Writer’s Life: Marin Thomas

Marin Thomas is the author of more than thirty western romances, and her first Women’s Fiction title — THE PROMISE OF FORGIVENESS (Berkeley/NAL) – was released March 1. Seeing as Marin played NCAA basketball for the University of Arizona Lady Wildcats, this season of college basketball Madness is the perfect time to talk about her new book, how she came to writing and who influenced her. Meet Marin:

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What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as writer?

I’ve learned that forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give or receive. Not until I became a parent and found myself navigating the rough waters of raising teenagers did I experience a parenting epiphany. I realized that the mistakes my parents had made raising me had been committed with the best of intentions. Every parent strives to do the right thing, but often we’re winging it as we go. Acknowledging the mistakes I made with my children has enabled me to forgive my own parents and appreciate the difficulty of parenting on all levels.

Forgiveness is a common theme in many of my books because it paves the way to a richer, sweeter more meaningful life.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

I write in the spare bedroom of our home. What I love most about my office is my desk. My husband purchased the Texas Ranger style monstrosity for me after I sold my first book to Harlequin in 2004. To date I’ve written over thirty books sitting at this desk.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Listen more, talk less.

Who inspires you?

My mother, who is now deceased, continues to inspire me each and every day. She was a bookaholic before the term became popular and she passed her love of reading on to me. She became my biggest cheerleader when I confided in her that I dreamed of becoming a published author…before self-publishing was even an option. Then she became my biggest fan when I finally sold. With each book I write, I give a quiet thanks to my mother for supporting my dream.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

I’m passionate about supporting the University of Arizona Alumni Association and the Letter Winners program. I credit my college experience with changing my narrow view of the world and broadening my horizons. I grew up a middle-class girl in a small southern Wisconsin town with little diversity. My athletic scholarship exposed me to different races, religions, and philosophies. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I hadn’t gone to college.

In 1982 I learned my first lesson in racism. While participating in a basketball tournament in rural Alabama our team was not allowed to eat in the main dining room of a restaurant because we had an African American coach and several African American players. Instead, we were escorted to a back room, where we ate in silence behind closed doors out of sight of the other diners.

I’d like to believe my experiences in college have made me a more sympathetic, caring human being. The small-town girl who graduated high school in Wisconsin is a far cry from the one who graduated college five years later and it has nothing to do with earning a degree.

What books do you recommend?

I’m a member of a wonderful group of women authors called The Tall Poppies. I’ve read several of their novels and would highly recommend any of them. You can find a list the authors and their books at www.tallpoppy.org

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“There’s a big promise in this book: love, redemption, and a story so gripping I couldn’t put it down.” – #1 NY Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber.

Marin Thomas grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin. She married her college sweetheart in a five-minute ceremony at the historical Little Chapel of the West in Las Vegas, Nevada. They currently live in Houston, where she spends her free time junk hunting and researching her next ghost tour.

On Balance…

I came across author Susie Orman Schnall as I browsed the Penn Alumni magazine section looking for my update about publishing a novel. I was sandwiched between two other announcements of novels being published —  before mine was classmate Cheryl Della Pietra announcing publication of her novel, Gonzo Girl. After mine was Susie announcing publication of her second novel, The Balance Project.

The novel emerged from an interview series of the same name. The Balance Project is “a series of relevant and refreshingly candid interviews with inspiring and accomplished women talking about balance.” Susie has just published interview No. 148 (mine). What prompted her quest to understand the notion of balance in women’s lives?

“I’ve always been curious about how women I admire manage the tragically glorified ‘doing it all’ craze. So I asked them. As I suspected, no one really does ‘it all.’ Everyone’s making sacrifices somewhere. And that should make us all feel a little better.” – Susie Orman Schnall

 

I recommend you skim the list of interviews and read a few — who interests you? A writer? A chef? A fashion designer? A journalist? They’re in there.

Allow me to suggest a few, women whose stories are windows into many different ways we make life happen:

No. 56: Nicola Kraus, Author and Creative Coach (author of many novels, including The Nanny Diaries)

No. 100: Reese Witherspoon, Actor/Producer (as if you need me to tell you)

No. 107: Bobbi Rebell Kaufman, Reuters Multimedia Anchor and Reporter (In the spirit of the Penn Alumni magazine that connected me to Susie in the first place, Bobbi is a fellow Penn grad)

And, okay, here’s mine (as if you haven’t heard freakin’ enough about me in the past year. I know.)

I have a feeling you’ll want to spend some time with these interviews, browsing, recognizing parts of yourself, wondering about paths not taken and paths you might yet take, remembering that this business of living can be thrilling, overwhelming, satisfying, crazy-making, enervating and energizing — and that we’re all doing the best we can. The interviews are fun peeks into alternate lives, and above all else, reminders that none of us is in this alone.

 

Seen through a Snowstorm: Creations Take On Their Own Life

We drove to Mammoth to celebrate my firstborn’s birthday: 15.

FIFTEEN. To you that may sound little, depending on your point of view, but indulge me. It’s as big as he’s ever been.

The weather conspired against us. It will snow all day, both days, with 50 mph winds. Lucky me, I’d decided in advance that I wasn’t skiing this time. It’s not my cup of cocoa, let’s say; I am preoccupied with falling, even before I put my boots on. My job today is ski support from the comfort of the lodge, writing and reading contentedly. Family bonus: I spare my husband having to worry about me while keeping track of the kids, too.

It’s not about the skiing, anyway, our trip. It’s about board games. It’s about meals together, and movies in the room. It’s even about the travel days, together in a car driving through California’s desert-to-mountain landscape. It’s the offhand conversations, singing with the radio, brothers watching TV shows sharing an iPad… and no fighting all day?! This is the good stuff. This is the good stuff. Did I mention 15?

At this moment I am sitting in the lodge looking out at near white-out conditions. My feet are cold despite two pairs of socks and boots. I’m supposed to be working on Novel 2. I’m in the first draft. I feel like I’m still learning how to write — in a good way — and hope to always feel that way. Bits of positive feedback for Shelter Us still trickles in, which feeds my determination to keep on writing. Like yesterday, I received an e-mail from a fellow She Writes Press author, Barbara Stark-Nemon, who had just read it and kindly shared with me the review she’d posted on Amazon and Goodreads. It began with a quote that I thought sounded so beautiful and then I realized, happily and with surprise, Duh, she’s quoting ME. I didn’t recognize my own words. My sentences took on their own life, they were not part of me anymore. They grew from me but became themselves.

I glance up and outside to the mountain. The glare is bright and my eyes take a moment to adjust. There’s the ski lift, there’s a tree, there’s the snow blowing across the sky. A faint body moves against the mountain through that snowy haze. I can’t see my boys, but I know they are out there, separate from me and gloriously growing into themselves, swooshing or falling all on their own.

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How Trump Inspired Me to Teach My Children

“Did you hear what Trump said about keeping Muslims out of America?” I asked my son the other morning before school. He was looking at the L.A. Times Sports section while I made breakfast. It was the week after the mass murder in San Bernardino, and we hadn’t talked about it. Maybe because I’d been too anxious about all of it, or too busy with getting life taken care of — kids to school, work done, make dinner, repeat.

“Well, they do sort of want to kill us,” he answered softly. His face said, “isn’t that a reasonable move?”

My stomach dropped as I questioned my bona fides as a parent: Had I allowed my child to become a xenophobe? Where had I failed?

Actually, I understand how a young teenager could feel this way. If you read headlines that “Islamic terrorists” are killing people around the world and down the freeway, it is not irrational to agree with the simplistic sentiment “we should stop letting them in until we get to the bottom of this.”

Folks are scared. So the plain notion — keep ’em out, lock the doors — makes sense, unless you read beyond headlines. Unless you are aware of history. Unless you remember America turning away Jewish refugees, and interning Japanese Americans. Unless you know context. And as his mother, that’s where I come in.

I confess, we haven’t talked much about terrorism. His world view is based on many things, but he doesn’t know what I believe, and he needs to know. He may not know that while terrorists claim to be “Islamic” they do not represent Islam. It is not top of mind that targeting any religious group – creating registries, shutting down places of worship, banning refugees – is 100% contrary to American values, and our Jewish values.

I am ashamed of my omission. I grew up in a home where we debated politics, where my parents taught us about initiatives or candidates they supported or opposed, and why. I thought I’d recreated that home just by being myself, but clearly I hadn’t. Or not enough.

How did that happen? It dawns on me that, unlike my parents, I shield my kids from many aspects of my life rather than incorporate them. Where my mom schlepped me with her to the market or dry cleaner or political rally, I go to the market — and call my Congressman — while my kids are in school. It’s easier for me. But the consequence is I am not transmitting my values. We miss opportunities to talk. And in these times, it is more important than ever to talk about what we believe, what kind of world we want to live in.

Back in the kitchen, my heart raced as I envisioned my son slipping into the darkness of Trump-ism because I hadn’t taught him better. I had one minute to set him straight before sending him off to school. I trotted out everything I could think of, not sure what might pierce his focus on the NFL match-ups for the weekend:

“Islam is not a violent religion. Most Muslims are peaceful.”

“Muslims are just like Jews and Christians. We’re cousins!”

“If a bad guy was a Jew, that wouldn’t make all Jews bad, would it?”

“Remember when we visited Manzanar, the internment camp? That’s what happens when we scapegoat an entire group of people, when we act based on fear.”

“Even Dick Cheney thinks Trump is off his rocker!”

He puts the paper away, ties his shoes, and I take a breath.

“Did you hear anything I said?”

“It’s okay, Mom. I understand.”

There is so much more to say. I want to tell him that the world is a safe place, despite the headlines, and that we do not have to live in fear, or act out of fear.

I need to work on my speech, but the conversation has started.

They Get Taller Than You

Sometimes the most biting truths, the ones that come as the biggest shocks, are the most obvious. You miss them because they are in you, you are breathing them.

For instance, my sister said the other day, speaking of her daughters: “I never had the conscious thought, ‘One day I will wake up and they will be taller than me.’ I knew it, but I never thought about it. Then when it happened I thought, I wish I could go back to yesterday and just be aware that that was the last time.”

I had my own “so obvious I refused to look at it” moment last week. Those kids you’re so consumed with raising to be responsible, productive, independent souls, will someday actually go do that. They will become their adult selves, they will move out and onward and become people you have to make a date to see for dinner.

Of course this is not news — we began saving for college when they were born — but I have refused to look at it. Maybe it is denial. Or maybe it is getting caught up in the demands of today, that tricks you into feeling that your life will always be exactly as it is right now.

In my first year as a mother, I spent so many red-eyed 3am’s rocking my baby in my arms that I felt that that would be my life forever. I would forever hold his entire weight in my arms and absorb the rhythms of his body in my heartbeat.

It’s all I can do now to remember that feeling.

So last week the realization that time is passing grabbed my face in its palms. It forced me to look at it. My sons are 11 and 14, which translates to “we have time, but also, not so much.” That infant is in high school.

What prompted this realization? A jokey conversation we had about how much my teen is going to love living on his own, doing what he wants, watching football all weekend uninterrupted. The next morning, I woke as though remembering bad news, recalling that conversation. Then I came downstairs with a different attitude toward making breakfast and packing lunches. It’s just a short time more. It’s just a short time more.

It was the same lesson I learned in that dark bedroom, the first year of his life: “This is finite. Be in the moment.” It settled me down, reminded me that the bad and the good of it were not forever. Life’s plans would catch up to us. Mothering babies taught me to be in the moment like nothing before or since. It’s part of why that first year felt like it lasted so long. Each day had more in it.

That’s all I want now — to elongate the days together. But staying in the moment is harder with bigger kids. The days race by. They play on their own. They want their own space. I try to stay close. I offer a back scratch. I look at them and wonder if today is the last day I am taller than them.

I Need A Hero: The Family Room Scene

The setting:

A family room in California. Late September, 5pm. A smattering of worn socks are strewn on the floor, alongside a sneaker and a flip flop. Lego pieces, the small ones perfect for inadvertently stepping on, hide in the carpet’s pattern. A throw blanket that had been strategically placed by the mother on the dirt-stained arm of the sofa is strewn on the floor, next to last week’s classwork spilling out of a backpack. A licked-clean popsicle stick takes up company on the floor with an empty plate that looks like Nutella may have been consumed there. We hope it was Nutella.

A child reclines on the sofa, absorbed in Volume 4 of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. He folds the page where the next chapter begins, and lumbers over to a stool next to his mother, who is just now reading the newspaper.

Kid: (Sighing) I think I want to join the Army. Or Something.

Mom: Well, that’s two different things. The Army, and Something. What’s Something?

Kid: I don’t know. I want to be a hero. Like Percy Jackson.

Mom: There are a lot of ways to be a hero that don’t involve bullets.

Kid: Like a fireman?

Mom: Uh huh…Actually, I was thinking of something else. I was reading about MacArthur Geniuses, and one hero who’s an environmental engineer, who learned how to take wastewater and turn it into energy.

Kid: I just like to fight.

Mom: I have an idea.

Kid: What is it?

Mom: You’ll be my hero when you pick up your socks, Legos, and dirty dishes.

Kid: #&$%#

And…SCENE!

 

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.

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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.

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.