It is college application season. You and your friends are being asked to condense your whole beings into 650 words, the grades you have earned, and a list of activities that caught your teenage interest. Is it any wonder you drag yourself to the desk? Who could go with grace to this task whose stakes feel so high?
Before you submit yourself for inspection to a committee that will decide if you are “worthy,” and before these schools with the big names that look so good on sweatshirts have their chance to pronounce your worth—allow me to answer:
Yes yes yes.
My dear heart—you who did not patent an invention, or work in a cancer research lab, or get elected president of, well, anything— you areamazing.
You excel at kindness, and making your parents laugh. You have a philosopher’s mind, a nurturer’s soul, and a prankster’s sense of humor. You notice when someone is standing outside the circle, and say, let’s make the circle bigger. You know how to stop a bully with a look.
Forgive my hyperbole; it’s about to get extra: you are the shining light of God’s eyes. I know you don’t believe in God, but can you think of a word that better captures the beauty of your unique soul? (If you can, use it in that essay.)
What I’m telling you is, Yes yes yes.
Before the envelopes, thick or thin, begin to arrive; before you even submit your requests; what I am telling you is you have all you need inside you to craft a life that fills you.
I am not saying, my sweet kiddo, that it will be smooth sailing. There will be times in life when you will question your worth. I tell you this from experience. Impostor syndrome comes to everyone, myself included. (Even the Queen of England, I am sure of it, had her moments of looking around Westminster Abbey, feeling the weight of the crown and sceptre, and pinching herself.) You will wonder, Who am I fooling? Who am I to write a book? To stand at an Open Mic? To dream of greatness?
What I’m telling you in a voice that is loud and clear and bold: you are everything.
So, when you do, you know, eventually, hopefully before the deadlines, send off those applications, know that your worth is not waiting to be decided. It is already as steadfast, whole, and unassailable as my love.
Last night I got stuck in that thin layer beneath consciousness, running through lists and worries. A single consolation prize — an idea for an essay. I did not get up in the dark, pilfer a pen from the mess on my window seat, and tiptoe to the bathroom where I could turn on a light without waking Christopher to write the opening sentence that was speaking itself, as I sometimes do. Sleep might be on its way, and I did not want to scare it off. I had a feeling that this one would stay with me until morning, unlike most nighttime whispers.
I would remember to call it “Welcome,” I told myself, and it would connect two stories: one about welcoming Maria home for Thanksgiving, her first visit after a year and a half; and one about finally welcoming an asylum-seeking family from El Salvador into America. I would write about chalk drawing in rainbow colors with my six-year-old neighbor Winnie, Maria’s former pre-school student, who calls me “Maria’s mom” because that is how Maria introduced me and she accepted it as an uncontroversial truth. And I would write about the asylum hearing that finally happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day Maria arrived home.
Back in June, when the hearing was supposed to have happened, I practiced every question to ask on direct and re-direct as I coasted over pre-traffic freeways on my way to court. I expelled all my anxious fumes back then, and this time my nerves were less ratcheted. I felt confident. Ready. My clients were prepared. I knew where to park. I knew which of the several government buildings housed the court, and on which floor the courtroom was. All these knowns added to my sense of ease and mastery, my sense of control.
Of course, I knew anything could happen. I told myself to expect the unexpected. For sure something would go sideways.
While I drove to court, Maria’s name and number lit up my phone. She wished me good luck and said her cousin would be taking her to the airport soon. We would hopefully have something to celebrate that night.
In the courtroom, we faced a raised “bench” where the judge would sit, a desk for the interpreter, and two rectangular tables, one for the government and one for my clients and me. Ours was set with two pairs of headphones for them to listen to the interpreter and two microphones for us to speak into. Their four daughters, ages 6, 12, 13, and 19, waited in the hallway so as not to be exposed to their parents’ testimony about why they fled their home — the multiple death threats from gangs because the father was a police officer. On the right, an empty table where the government attorney should be. The judge called our case, then dialed a conference line.
The government attorney’s voice materialized. Present by phone, a Covid option.
We began. And the sideways detour arrived: the judge asked if we could skip my direct exam (all those questions I had practiced!). “In light of the voluminous and detailed record” I had submitted – hundreds of pages including my clients’ written testimony, psychological evaluations to prove their trauma, personal references, police reports corroborating their persecution, expert government reports and news stories – “could we proceed to any clarifying cross-examination, and then any redirect, if necessary?” I understood that we had made our case. I agreed to skip direct, sparing my clients the rehash of their trauma.
The government attorney launched into his cross-examination, something he had not expected to do for a couple hours. He began with the husband, pushing him as to why he did not “do more” to get the police to investigate the death threats against him and his family. The lawyer’s tone grew increasingly hostile as he warmed up. Besides making the police reports, what else did you do? What else?What else? My client held his ground, explaining the steps he had personally taken to protect his family when the police would do nothing. Reinforced bars on the home. Extra ammunition in his gun. Sleepless nights watching out windows. Pulling his kids out of school to keep them safe at home.
Finally, his composure broke and his wife sobbed as the memories of her family’s danger flooded her. I interjected once. After forty minutes, the judge stopped his questioning. “You cannot see their demeanor,” she said to the disembodied government voice, “but they are…affected.” A weak word, I thought, to communicate to the official who could not see his prey, that they were wounded, distraught. He finally understood the outcome as much as I did. When the judge asked, he said the government would defer to the court’s decision (i.e. he would relinquish his right to appeal if she granted them asylum).
Under this circumstance, the judge then asked me if I needed to ask any questions on redirect. It was apparent from her expression that she did not need any more information.
“No re-direct, your Honor.”
The judge indicated that I should go get the daughters. The detour had found its conclusion. I knew in my gut good news was coming.
The girls flowed into the room and sat together, four in a row behind their parents.
The judge looked into my clients’ eyes, and spoke slowly enough for the interpreter to state without a stumble:
I find the Respondent to be credible.
I find that he has suffered past persecution
And has a well-founded fear of future persecution
Based on his political opinion.
A grant of asylum is merited.
Welcome. I do not know if the gasp I felt at the ridgeline of my heart is audible in the recorded transcript.
We took a photograph in the courtroom after the judge left, the mother telling her eldest daughter to be sure she got the flag in it. I turned to see an American flag standing at attention that I had not noticed the whole time we had sat facing it.
Six days later, my family and theirs met for a picnic celebration at the park. Emmett taught the dad to throw an American football. Christopher entertained the six-year-old with his unique antics. Maria told the teen girls and their mom about her path from asylee to Legal Permanent Resident. The 13-year-old daughter interrupted to ask Maria, Wait, so how are you related to these people?
“Son mis padres,” she answered with a smile. Unlike little Winnie next door, who had taken our relationship at face value, this teenager’s face twisted into a universal expression of, what in the hell are you talking about? Maria laughed and added an explanation. We are her extra parents.
So yes, these are the things I wanted to write about this morning, about welcoming someone home with a gorgeous sign made of chalk and love, and of welcoming a family with sandwiches and football into our country’s safe harbor.
But my story turned sideways this morning when my high schooler texted at 9:40 a.m.
Hey guys, apparently there’s a rumor of a kid with a gun that might be on campus.
It’s probably BS but about half the student body left.
Oh hold up
They found the kid
He had a gun
He was tackled
I have a Spanish quiz
But I think I’ll leave just in case.
Any day can go sideways.
My morning drowned in fielding texts from him, talking to him to hear he was safe, texts from other parents, replying in a daze, chasing down more rumors:
They were locked down.
They were not “on lockdown” but they were locked in, no one allowed in or out.
They were not locked in, they were just processing departures slowly due to demand.
Another local high school had been threatened and kids had fled it, too.
The school sent a message to parents after 11 am, long after the exodus of our children: There were no “credible threats” to campus. There had been rumors among students about threatening social media posts. All information has been reported to LAPD, which continues to investigate and monitor. Extra security had been requested as a precautionary measure.
So those texts from my son? Pure rumors. No kid, no gun, no tackle. But there had been enough concern that the school had requested “precautionary measures.” Was there a real threat, or were they being (thankfully) responsible in light of last week’s abhorrent breach of duty in Michigan?
The school had left us without any information. My son and his peers were left to decide whether to stay put or flee. I had no information to help guide him. What was their conversation as hordes of students flooded out the gates? Did they wonder if their teachers would let them make up tests and quizzes? Did they wonder what might be in the backpack of the kids leaving with them?
My son’s voice was light when we spoke soon after. He was with friends, going to one of the girl’s houses. A free pass for a day. I was taking this harder than he was, at least that was what it seemed. Who is to say? Maybe he walks around in a ball of anxiety because this could happen any day.
I left the house to take a walk and I found myself across from the school. A bell rang and kids materialized in the quad and the paths. Easy targets. One local news station had set up a camera on a corner, pointed at the school as if to capture a moment no one wanted to happen but would be a great scoop if it did, fellas! I kept walking, a stray thought that I could take a bullet for my chosen path. When I got to the bluffs, I sat on a bench and cried, though not enough to release all my clenched fear. Maybe the body needs to hold some of it to remain alert.
My client stood at the window of his house while his family slept, looking out for danger, locked down in his house waiting for bad guys to come. What else did you do to protect your family? What else?
What do we do in the face of this constant threat to our children? We text them, Be safe, Don’t leave the classroom. Or Do leave. Trust your gut. Forget the quiz. Nothing matters. We are scared for our kids. We are tired. At the end of the day, he went back to school for a play rehearsal. I let him. There had been no real threat, after all. Just rumors. What about tomorrow?
The notebook paper is warped and stained with coffee from the mug I knocked over when I pushed my laptop screen away from my “maturing” eyes. An accident, though you may tell me there are no such things.
I blot the paper dry, and the mark it leaves on it does not obscure what is written in my 17-year-old’s hand: “College Possibilities.” His list, unnumbered, stretches more than halfway down the horizontal blue lines, in penmanship neater than years past. He is thinking about his future.
I time-travel backward, and sit at this same table writing a list of names for the baby who is still a part of my body, who at 17 will still be part of my body in a way he will never understand until he is a parent. I try out the sound of each name, closing my eyes to envision what each collection of syllables and histories and meanings might predict for this as-yet unmet soul, how he might live into the sound of them.
Over the next 12 months, he will do much the same with his list, trying on each for fit as best as he can. If time is not linear, the lists sit side by side.
I could find that list of baby names if you gave me an hour, folded into a journal or photo album or baby book. I could place my hands on it, wipe its spine coated with dust, particles of our skin and sweat that have collected these past 17 years.
In the end, none of the names on my list rang true. Days after he was born, it was my sister’s suggestion that wrapped him lightly like a cloud, wide enough to allow any adventure he might choose — artist or clown, athlete or sage — wherever his big heart may lead. I hope his list of possibilities does, too.
When a bedroom became my home office, I chose the things I wanted around me. A framed black and white photo of a pier. Books on writing, memoirs, poetry, and journals. A particular copy of The Giving Tree. This book remained precious even after a Women’s Studies classmate destroyed the ending for me (it really is terrible — give your whole self away…and happily!). This Giving Tree represents something else.
At sixteen, I went to a summer high school theater and dance program at Northwestern University for six weeks. Six weeks that felt, at first, like forever. Homesick for my friends and family and California. Exhausted from hours of dancing every day. Not sure how to insert myself into the social life that everyone else seemed to know how to do. Not sure anyone would want me to. One night, pressing back tears, I told a dance teacher that all I wanted to do was sleep, but thought I should go downstairs where everyone else was hanging out. He encouraged the latter instinct. “Yes. Go down there.”
I did, certain it would be horrible. That no one would say hello. That all friendships had been formed. I knew how this worked; there would be cool kids and outsiders, and I was never in the cool kid group. Down the stairwell of Allison Hall, unairconditioned in the Midwest humidity, I could hear the hubbub and laughter and energy of the theater kids splayed out all over each other on the lounge sofas. I pictured entering and no head turning. Or worse, heads turning, and then turning back. I walked through the wide opening to this lounge, and stood still. Then I heard my name called from someone sitting in the middle of everything. There was room.
Every day we had “movement for actors,” where we learned to salute the sun and mean it. We felt a connection to something bigger, something remembered and still reachable from childhood. We could be open and unafraid and unembarrassed and unencumbered. One morning, our teacher turned on the Talking Heads at high volume and let us go, and we danced like wild things, playful and with abandon. That album still opens that space in me.
The day before we were to go home, our teachers woke us early and told us to come downstairs, no questions. This was a time before cell phones (let us recall with gratitude), and a space of trust and connection had been built. We moved down the stairwells and followed them to a green space. In groups of ten or so, we stood in circles centered around a sapling and a shovel. We shared how we had grown over these six weeks, then planted our tree and blessed it with our intentions.
Then, we each received The Giving Tree, personalized and signed by every adult who had nurtured and watered us over these weeks. They had stayed up all night signing every book. They told a 16-year-old girl who was not the best dancer in her group — not by far — what made me special, that I gave my heart when I danced and that it had moved them. One signature stayed with me most, a blessing and an admonition from the same dance teacher who had nudged me to go downstairs that night: “Your artistry shone brightly here. Don’t ever hide it.”
I pick up this book every few years, read what my teachers wrote and wonder if I am living up to it. Some years more than others, they have reminded me that I am more than the family grocery-shopper and appointment maker. I am that sixteen year old who felt the sun on her face and stretched her arms out wide without a sense of cynicism or shame, and danced in a space free of judging myself or others. It reminds me of the power of rituals and words, and the way a few generous words can send a young person into a future with a sense of their power, the impact they have on others, and what they can aspire to. That the right words can remain a touchstone decades into the future. We all have an artistry — whether it is dancing, or writing, or making someone laugh, or baking a cake, or tucking in a child, or caring for a parent. Whatever yours is, may my teacher’s words be my gift to you today: Your artistry shines brightly. Don’t ever hide it.
When I tell someone we have two new puppies, the reaction goes, “Puppies are so cute! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies!” Followed immediately by, “It’s like having babies.”
I grant that there are many similarities. They are crazy cute. I am more housebound than I would like to be. And they pee in inappropriate places. But that’s where the similarities end for me. I feed them from a bag not my body, baby wipes are only for their ears, and I can leave them in a crate in a pinch.
Last week, my 15-year-old echoed the “puppies are like babies” sentiment, saying that raising puppies will help prepare him for being a father. (Awww…!) There’s some truth there: caring for puppies exercises your patience, love, and forgiveness. It requires you to do or say the same thing over and over and over before they “get” it. And at setbacks and joys alike, you must remind yourself “this too shall pass.”
One moment with the puppies recently reminded me of a feeling I had in my early days with an infant. About 15 and a half years ago, in the wee dark hours of the night I sat in a rocker with my baby in my lap for a middle-of-the-night feeding. He was asleep in my arms, finished with his milk, and the crib loomed a mere four feet away from us. I had never yet managed to get this love out of my arms and into his crib without him waking and crying (I would later discover co-sleeping, Praise Be). Hoping this would be the first time, that I would soon return my groggy self to my own bed, I slowly rose, glided soundlessly across the room, leaned my body over the crib with his body against mine until the mattress accepted his weight, I ever sooooooo slooooowly stood up. I waited. YES! I had done it! He was still sleeping! I was ebullient! I felt like I’d scaled a mountain! Cured cancer! Could do anything!
My comparable puppies moment: that same son and I gave them a bath.
The puppies had been playing in the yard after the sprinklers had been on, digging a hole in wet soil. They were filthy. White paws were dark brown. We couldn’t let them in the house. A bath was mandatory.
We had never done this before. There was no special puppy tub, and the kitchen sink seemed too big for these guys. How would we accomplish this? Where to begin? We retrieved a towel, a bucket, and put two inches of warm water and soap in it. Good enough start. My son stood ready with the towel while I put the first dog in. With a little rubbing, the dirt came off. I handed the surprised, wet pup to the waiting, towel-holding arms of my son, and repeated. These two baths lasted less than 30 seconds, and we had two clean, dry puppies!
We were so inordinately proud of ourselves we high ten‘ed.
That was no small thing. My son is a great kid, wonderful to be around. But I’m the mom, the one who asks about homework and reminds about appointments, so sometimes it feels like we are moving in opposite directions, like friction is our default. Joining forces to give the puppies their first bath, exulting together in that new-parent feeling of accomplishment, reminding ourselves of our bond, was a priceless moment that made every other little puppy mess well worth it.
Disclaimer: As I’ve mentioned other places, I opened up to the idea of Torah study only when I realized that you didn’t have to believe it is the literal word of God, or even believe in God, to get something out of it. When I learned that I could consider it a literary gift from generations before me who wrestled with the big, human questions that I wrestle with now, then I could freely read and see what there might be to learn from it. Some weeks my mouth opens and my eyes tear up at how pertinent it is to me.
So…a little bit of Torah and motherhood, coming up.
When I told a friend that my two favorite appointments of the week are CardioFunk and Torah study, he responded, “That’s a good balance.” He’s right. Because balance is not about finding a moderate, static, placid lake to float on and stay there; balance is about sometimes riding the biggest wave, pushed by their power and danger, and other times reclining on the beach with a book.
Where dance class is joyful, fast, breathless, soaring and sexy, Torah study is careful, patient, thoughtful, peeling back layers of meaning, an inner adagio. After dance class, I am spent, dopamine-brained, and mellow, wanting nothing but a shower and a nap. After Torah study, I have learned something, if I’m lucky I’ve had a new insight, however small it might be.
This week Torah study was, for a mother of teens and a tween, a lesson in launching adolescents into the world.
We are at the end of the Torah’s tale, before we re-roll the scroll and start again at the beginning. It’s a story we read at the time of year when we are thinking about the kind of person we ought to be, how we have measured up over the past year, how we are going to try to do better.
In the story, Moses tells the Israelites that he’s not going to go with them into the promised land. He knows they’ll be worried to bits about going without him. So, like a good parent, he tells them (in my words) “You can do it on your own. You will be fine. I trust you. And God (or perhaps that true compass in your gut that guides you) will be with you. You can do it without me.”
I think of the baby I saw a few days ago on the verge of sleep, perched on her father’s lap, her head leaning against his chest, and her little hand resting on his arm. Gently, with two fingers her father stroked her cheek, her eyebrow, over and over, until she let go of wakefulness, content and secure.
I wished I could still soothe my kids with just that touch now. But their world has bigger concerns. Friends can become distant — or worse — without explanation. Teachers can unwittingly be harsh. The world can feel unwelcoming. I stand behind them whispering encouragement. “Go for it. You can do it. I trust you. God is inside you. You are so loved. You are so loved.”
I recite a silent prayer for balance, to be more loving and to let them go without me.
I remind myself that life is filled with hurts and with healing, with hard times and coming through hard times, with celebrating the safe passage to a promised land, and all that is gained in the difficult journey: The confidence born of seeing your own resilience. The dawning certitude that others do not define your worth. That your acts, the ways you treat people, define you.
I stand back in awe as I watch them walk into uncharted territory, into the world’s hurts and its bounty, with courage, forward motion, sometimes sadness, and ultimately with optimism that they will find the promised land they so deserve.
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.