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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was the vehemence of the assault that surprised me. The attacker: my son. His weapon: my birthday cake.
My birthday was last week. With Maria in our family now, I knew this year would be different than the usual last-minute birthday cards. Birthday celebrations in Guatemala have unique traditions, which I learned about one afternoon during a front yard soccer game a few days before my husband’s birthday.
Maria, who had joined our family two weeks earlier, called me over and whispered in Spanish, “I have an idea for Christopher’s birthday. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m….” Wow, I thought, is she going to prepare a feast for when he awakes two hours later? She’s amazing! “And I’ll wake up the boys at 4 a.m.,” she continued, “and we’ll come into your room at 4 a.m. and sing songs and pour ice water on him!” Her face was overtaken by a huge smile.
Which I had to snuff out, even if it was culturally insensitive. “No. No way. Do NOT do that. He will not like that.” She took the note, and instead made a huge, colorful birthday banner, taped to the dining room wall after he went to bed. Lovely. Two weeks later, we celebrated my older son’s birthday in a similar way. No middle of the night birthday anarchy. I had protected them from this particular cultural exchange.
Cue my birthday. I had seen hints that Maria and the boys were at work on an art project, heard giggling and whispers, and was happy the three of them were getting along so well. On the morning of my birthday, I woke up to the sounds of them scampering about. I felt content, not only because I knew there was something special planned for me, but because this experiment of welcoming a stranger into our family was succeeding beyond my wildest dreams. I had never expected my boys to come to love Maria, nor so quickly.
At 6:30 a.m. Maria and the boys entered our bedroom. Aaron held a beautiful cake that read “Happy Birthday Laura” in flowing red icing script, and candle flames lit the dark bedroom. Maria held an iPad playing “Happy Birthday” in mariachi style. Emmett held a camera, recording the moment. I felt loved and appreciated.
I made my wish, and then I blew out my candles. Before I could inhale my next breath, I was inhaling my cake and my son’s fist behind it. He pushed the entire quarter-sheet cake up onto my chest and chin. That was their plan. Ha ha ha. Feliz cumpleanos.
But my 14-year-old kept going. He grabbed the cake and shoved it at my head. Cake flew everywhere: on me, my pillow, the bed, the floor, the rug. When he finally stopped, the cake was destroyed. I was crestfallen. Either he had misunderstood Maria’s instructions and innocently taken it too far, or he had become overcome by aggression over every fight about too much screentime.
It felt like the latter — “Does he hate me that much?” I wondered. I tried not to cry. The kids sort of helped Christopher clean up. I got in the shower. Though I tried not to let it, it colored the rest of my day, a charcoal hue that came with me on a hike underneath otherwise blue skies. I tried to shake it off. By day’s end, we had moved on, and eaten the entire cake.
A few days have passed, and I’ve recovered from the hurt feelings. I still don’t know if the intensity of the cake attack was motivated by suppressed anger, or the thrill of permission to run amok. I look for a lesson regardless, something to salvage.
Perhaps it is this: I have entered the era of Mother to an Adolescent. There will be friction and misunderstandings, disagreements and disputes. But at the end of the day, we come together. We share the ample sweetness there is, in all its delicious imperfection.
My kids keep telling me to stop embarrassing them.
There are three general categories of embarrassing incidents about which they complain:
1) Being friendly and talking to “everyone” (e.g. “anyone” in public who is not in our immediate family);
2) Singing loudly in public places, like the local Rec Center parking lot, for no apparent reason;
3) Shouting “I LOVE YOU, HONEY” when I drop them off at school.
Okay, the last one I have to own. That is embarrassing. And it may have been on purpose to embarrass them. Embarrassing one’s children is not only a family rite of passage, it is an important life lesson: I learned at a young age not to let other people’s choices embarrass me. I am responsible only for my own.
As my father’s daughter, I learned this as a matter of survival. My father, an anti-smoking zealot since the 1950’s (e.g. before it was cool), would bring a squirt gun or handheld fan with him to public places — movie theater, sports venue, restaurant, party. Recall, if you can, the typical smoker’s posture: wrist tilted back, cancer-stick burning between second and third fingers, smoke spiraling away from their own face. A flick of the fan’s button blew secondhand smoke back into the offending smoker’s face. That seemed fair.
The squirt gun, however, was a different level of combat. Its purpose was to extinguish a burning cigarette from a distance. Squirt guns having notoriously unreliable aim, my father’s life was in more immediate danger from the smoker than from the smoke.
I recall the defining moment in my adolescence when I had an epiphany about not being embarrassed by my parents. At my 8th grade graduation, as I lined up with one hundred fourteen-year-olds to enter the auditorium, my father approached me and said in his loudest voice for all to hear, “LAURA, DON’T WORRY. I WON’T EMBARRASS YOU. I PROMISE, NO MATTER WHAT, LAURA DIAMOND, EMBARRASSING YOU WOULD BE THE LAST THING I WOULD DO.” He grinned his I-crack-myself-up grin, I shook my head and smiled, and I realized in that moment that he could not embarrass me. He was him. I was me. (It couldn’t have hurt that he was, and is, a wonderful father.)
Still, I have promised my kids that I would stop the intentional embarrassments — the “I love you’s” in front of school are now always private, quiet affairs.
But there will remain embarrassments, the ones that are expressions of who I am — the spontaneous singing, the talking to strangers. When my kids ask me to stop these, I now borrow a response I heard my friend tell his child: “I will always be who I am, and I am not going to change that.”
I gotta be me. And I hope they learn the freedom to be who they are.
I think it’s working. My younger son offered this a few days ago: “I think it’s better to be unique than to be like everyone else.”
Full heart balloons of YES! floated through my body, out my ears, through the open windows and high above the house, popping in the spring sky, raining down a resounding prayer of “please always feel this way.”
I’m not saying this is an easy attitude to achieve or maintain, as it runs contrary to the adolescent condition. But for better or worse, my kids will get plenty of practice not taking personally my embarrassing ways. I feel a song coming on…
This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.
You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.
A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.
You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.
(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).
But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:
1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.
2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.
3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.
4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.
5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.
6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.
I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.
You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.
P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.
Am I a lazy parent because I sent my sons to school knowing there’s a decent chance they will be shot and killed, but all I can do is hope for the best?
Because resignation is the feeling I had this morning reading more about last week’s “child murders children story.”
Do school shootings now occupy the same class of “terrible, unpredictable, unavoidable” as car accidents – they happen, but there’s nothing to be done besides crossing one’s fingers and not dwelling on the negative “what ifs”?
I know there are actions to take. Groups to support in their tireless efforts. Women Against Gun Violence. The Brady Campaign. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. There are messages and memes to share on Facebook. But what does that amount to? The gun that the Washington state football-player-Homecoming-Prince boy brought to school was bought legally and registered to someone in the family. Distraught over a breakup, it seems he texted his friends to join him in the cafeteria and then vented his sorrow with bullets. We can imagine that if there were no gun at home, he’d have punched a hole in the wall, or even someone’s face, and lived with his sadness until things got better.
I join the groups and I share the buttons, but look: even legal guns wreak havoc! So is the solution to accept that this is the way things are, or to radically change the way things are…or to believe in slow change? Slow change doesn’t seem to be working.
Do you want to keep crossing your fingers every day that it’s not your kid who gets shot?
Do we end this tyranny of guns? Share your concrete suggestions. And please be civil to each other.
When The Hunger Games: Catching Fire alights on movie screens this weekend, I’ll be lining up with my sons to see it. Rather than worry that it is too violent, I’ll use it to talk about the real life violence it symbolizes off-screen – in the Congo, in China, and in America. I will confess with not a little shame, “Guys, we are The Capitol.”
In the world of The Hunger Games, the privileged few reside in “The Capitol,” an oasis of affluence in a dismal post-apocalyptic society. They divert themselves with an annual national competition in which teens hunt and kill each other until one Victor remains. Okay, maybe we don’t force kids to engage in blood sport for our amusement (Mike Tyson might beg to differ), but we do live large off the blood and toil of poor children and adults in third world countries, and our own.
Meanwhile “Capitol parents” like me wring our hands over whether “twelve is too young for an iPhone” and debating the appropriate minutes of “screen time” each day. I’m guilty of wearing those blinders.
Or let’s talk about China, where millions of people can’t breathe because their manufacturing standards enable us – here in The Capitol – to buy cheap products. I once challenged my sons to find anything on the shelf at CVS that wasn’t made in China, and I’d buy it. We walked out empty handed. The air quality in parts of China is so bad that a friend who just returned had to seek medical care when he came home to Los Angeles, because his lungs had been so compromised. “I felt like the Lorax,” he admitted, “because I was able to lift myself up and out of that mess.”
Some may say that developing nations like these need time and room to become first world, and that this is the price we all pay until they do. But the situation of despair and inequality is not limited to other countries.
In cities across America, we close our eyes to wage exploitation of service workers. It has been reported that in billion-dollar companies like Walmart and McDonalds, wages are so low that workers need food stamps to feed their families. All this so profits can soar and we can fill up on gadgets we want but may not need.
Facing these realities can be depressing and frustrating. But they can also be motivating. Because our job as parents is to raise kids who can appreciate the abundance in their lives, and to inspire them to change the world. It’s imperative that we tell them that the amenities we enjoy – electricity and electronics, for starters – are often at the expense of others. And it is also imperative that we empower them to do something about it.
And they can. We may not rule the world, but there is power is in our purse strings. We can demand that companies use products made with conflict-free minerals. If none exist yet, then they’d better exercise their influence to change that. We can exercise consumer choice, shopping at small stores where our dollars don’t support unfair labor practices. We can buy items made with sustainable, non-toxic materials. Investors can choose Socially Conscious Investments, which encourage CEOs to do the right thing even if it’s for the wrong reason. We can support efforts of vulnerable workers to unionize, as car wash workers in Santa Monica did last year, and we can patronize businesses that pay workers fair wages. We can raise our voices in favor of paying living wages, recognizing the dignity of all people as we enter a reflective, sacred time of year.
Most importantly, we can strive not to shield our kids from the truth. To be honest, in an age-appropriate way. We owe it to our kids to do the right thing, not to bury our heads like The Capitol-dwellers in order to make our privileged existence palatable. We owe it to Katniss.
I turned on the computer with every good intention to go straight to my Word file and work on revising the book I mentioned yesterday.
Except, somehow, I ended up on Facebook.
It worked out, because a friend posted this.
It reminded me of my post last week on perspective, and the words I attributed to Gloria Steinem, that she loves not knowing what comes next, because it might be wonderful.
And that’s what I wanted to say today. Yesterday, in the midst of my self-doubt-y mood that we all have from time to time, I carelessly referred to my book as being about “Recession and Moving and other good stuff.” That’s not quite right. That sounds so “ugh.” And I owe it to the book, and to you, to let you know that the book is very NOT ugh. It’s about choosing joy, taking risks, having fun, traveling with family, discovering new favorite places, rope swinging, and eating a hell of a lot of ice cream.
That’s what “other good stuff” means.
Writing the book has been so much fun because it lets me travel back to those places and feelings. Yesterday I was in the thick of an adrenaline rush from innertubing in the Delaware River in a rainstorm.
Today I may be in New York’s Chinatown.
Tomorrow, who knows? It will probably involve ice cream.
I’m getting started right now. Today’s mantra? Close Facebook. Disconnect Firefox. Hunker down. Make this day one of dreaming and doing.