on writing and authenticity

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Self-Portrait, college photography class, 1991

I started blogging in February 2007. I didn’t set out to write a blog, at least not one that would become public. It began as a log of my second pregnancy, and I wrote mostly for myself and eventually to share with family and friends. I don’t remember blogs existing when I was first pregnant with my oldest daughter in 2001. Pregnancy and motherhood blogs were not yet everywhere, nor was Buzzfeed or Twitter or Instagram, even in 2007. I didn’t have a Facebook account until sometime in 2009, still hesitant about my online presence.

That second pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 10 weeks in April 2007, and my writing took an unexpected turn. I found myself in shock to be among the 1 in 5 (likely more like 1 in 4) women who have miscarried. I found myself publicly grieving what could have been. I wrote a lot that month, and then I slowed down, less attached to my online space until I got pregnant again in September 2007. We were living overseas by then, far from family and home, and this was a way I stayed connected to my people.

I was thrilled to be pregnant again, hopeful. In spite of my previous loss, I trusted my body and my baby. The only time in early pregnancy when I remember worrying was when I first suspected I might be pregnant and had some cramping, likely from the fertilized egg implanting into the lining of my uterus. But after that, after that pregnancy test that was so vividly positive, I was full steam ahead. Positive and happy in spite of the morning sickness. Confident.

I spent 6 weeks of that pregnancy in agony on the couch with a horrible case of shingles. I didn’t take antivirals or pain medicine because I didn’t want to endanger my baby. I made it through what was by far the most physically painful 6 weeks of my life straight into a 10 day sinus infection. But still I was undaunted. I was pregnant  and I could feel my baby kicking inside me. I had no reason to think anything would go wrong.

And then it did. At my unborn baby’s 21 week ultrasound, the doctor told us there was a problem. And I found myself relating to my online space differently. It became my lifeline to those who loved us who were far away, across the ocean. As I journeyed through the second half of my now-high risk pregnancy, my online space grew as my circle of support grew. We returned home from overseas to navigate uncharted waters with support and familiarity, and to do so in English. When Tikva was born and for the 58 days she lived, I shared our powerful story together at Growing Inside. I shared our love. And the love that surrounded us – the love that held us – that love grew.

After Tikva died, I kept writing. I wrote for my survival. I wrote also at Glow in the Woods, a website created by and for parents who had also lost babies. I wrote – again – about the loss of all that was possible, the loss of my dreams, the loss of my child. I connected, via my blog, with other babylost parents, with women who held me and whom I was able to hold through their grief and rebuilding. I wrote 471 posts at Growing Inside, and at the end of December 2009, almost a year and a half after my daughter had died, I felt it was time to stop.

I started a new space, at the time a more private space, a few months later. I called it Clearing Space and Settling In and I wrote in it sporadically, but without the momentum I’d had writing at Growing Inside. The internet is like that, you can exist somewhere, then you recreate yourself and exist somewhere else. It’s still you, still your story, but the space feels fresh, new, and I think I was hopeful it would inspire movement within me. Inspiration. Maybe it did. I’m not sure.

Then in late 2010, again with news to share, I created another new spaceA Radiant Beam of Light. With some help, I had gotten pregnant again, this time with twins. Here in this new place, I wrote about the ups and I wrote about the downs. I wrote about sharing the news with our older daughter, her joy, my joy. When one of the twins died just after we had told our daughter she was going to be a big sister again, I wrote again about loss and grief and sorrow, and this time I wrote about anger. I wrote about fear. I shared my prayers that I wouldn’t lose the second baby. I held the loss of Tikva and I held my breath. I could not drop into this pregnancy with ease. This time pregnancy was scary.

That post I’d written about telling our daughter we were expecting twins breaks my heart to read now. What do you do with hope that existed – hope that was put into words – and then was lost? Does its energy still exist in the history of all that has been?

And then I could no longer feel the second twin moving inside me, and on Valentine’s Day I found out he had died. A few days later, I delivered my almost-babies. Again, I said goodbye to my dreams, to what might have been. Again I grieved. This time it was angry, hopeless grieving. I wrote sporadically at A Radiant Beam of Light and then I stopped in April 2013, two years after losing the twins.

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The desire to write – at certain times the need to write – hasn’t left me since I discovered it almost 35 years ago. I have always written and I have always wanted to write. I have always had the desire to share my stories. I’ve filled countless journals since I was 10 years old. I’ve submitted stories and won prizes. I’ve written long letters and postcards in tiny print to and from countries all over the world. I’ve kept lengthy computer diaries on my DOS word processor. I’ve written down a piece of my family history that grew into my college honors thesis. I’ve written pages-long emails over years of correspondence with friends – all of which I’ve kept and some of which I’ve dreamt of editing and publishing in some form because they are so heartfelt and true. I’ve taken creative writing classes and participated in writing workshops for women. I’ve written fiction. I’ve written almost-fiction that comes from my experiences. I’ve written professionally. I’ve been published in the media a few times and had so many ideas for other pieces I want to write.  I have written down story ideas on tiny scraps of paper and begun stories and even finished some. I have dreamed of writing books. And I have blogged.

There have been times when my writing has surprised me, as if I were a channel for something that simply needed to come through me, but not responsible for the words themselves. As if the words came from a place other than my mind. My soul? It’s not a religious thing and I am by no means any kind of sage. I think it is what writers – or artists of any kind – refer to as being in the flow. For me, it is creating while connecting to something bigger – or connecting to something bigger by writing. At times writing at Growing Inside, I felt this so deeply. I would sit down to write at the kitchen table or, after we moved, at my desk in the sunroom, and it would just come out, and out, and out. And then I would read what had just come through me and say, Yes. It was cathartic and healing, and I learned later that it was sometimes healing, or nurturing, or validating for those who read my words, too. To me, that was the greatest gift my writing gave me – knowing that it could help others in some small way to know they are not alone. I thought of the books I’ve read, the ones that have touched me most deeply – the way they have spoken to me, the way they made me feel understood.

Isn’t the purpose of bravely sharing our truest selves to be able to resonate with each other?

My whole life I’ve written to make sense of my world and myself. I’ve shared my stories because I suspect – I hope – they are in some way universal stories. We are all on our hero’s journey, with its losses and triumphs, its lessons and its incredible potential for growth and for love. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become braver about sharing my thoughts, my beliefs, my personal philosophy as it becomes concrete. I’ve been bolder about being authentic, and as a result I’ve discovered that it is the only way I truly want to be in the world. It is the only way I can be and now, at 44, it hurts to be anything else.

So I started writing here, in this new space, just 8 months ago. I thought of the words that make my heart sing and the energy I want to put out into the world and Love, Beauty & Abundance became its name. I thought of how much of myself I want to share, and confronted the fears that came up about being too public in an online universe that can be crazy and unforgiving. I think each time I write about the people closest to me and their privacy, their own personal stories that are theirs, wanting to respect them while respecting my need to share my own experience. I think of how I can honor them with my words. That’s not always easy to navigate – I think for any writer – but I can tell you that my intentions are good.

I don’t lie in this space. I’m not here to pretend I am something I’m not. I try to be humble and I let myself be confident – because I think we (especially women) are quicker to play down our strengths than to share and celebrate them. I am not a competitive person – I believe in abundance, that there is room for all of us to share our gifts, to share our stories. I am inspired by so many people around me – those I know and others I know only by name, or by their words. What inspires me is connection.

Thank you for joining me here, in this space. And for sharing this piece of my story. 

 

 

another day in paradise

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Summer has felt elusive this year, like New Year’s Eve in the way that New Year’s Eve so often feels anticlimactic, idealized and seldom as satisfying as we hoped it might be. It’s the middle of July, school starts again in 3 weeks, and I don’t feel like I’ve had a summer yet. On Facebook, it seems like everyone I know has taken their families to Italy this summer. I traveled to Italy many times to visit my grandparents there when they were still alive, so it’s not the novelty of it that I crave; mostly it’s just the desire to be somewhere summer-like, to be on vacation.

I was home from California with my son for five days, and on the sixth day I was on a plane again – unexpectedly – heading back there, this time on my own. I landed in San Francisco late in the evening after the unfamiliar experience of traveling without children (I felt like an impostor, as if I was play-acting the role of solo traveler) and headed straight to my father’s bedside. I spent the night holding his hand.

While in California, I learned that I appreciate the people who care for the elderly and the fragile with the same profound gratitude that I appreciate those who cared for my infant daughter in the NICU. I learned that – after years regretting that I had never gone back to school to become a social worker or a nurse, and that now I felt too old to do so – I have no desire anymore to become a social worker or a nurse. I learned that sitting by the bedside of a loved one feels the same, no matter their age.

I learned that plans change. And change. Constantly.

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I spent some time in the apartment my father has lived in for several years, and got lost for a few hours in photo albums of his childhood and my own. It was cathartic, reminding me again that much of my childhood was easy and free, stable and good, filled with so much love. It reminded me that the love I have for my father is built on the unconditional love he has always had for me.

I don’t think our essence changes between childhood and old age. I think at our core, in the purest version of ourselves, we are always the same. I could see in a six-year-old version of my father, in his 22-year-old portrait, in the 40-year-old man who carried ten-year-old me on his shoulders, the same person whose hand I held that week. His dark, striking and loving eyes, his serious brow, his warm, sometimes mischievous smile are the same.

Walking up to his apartment, I met one of his friends, a woman in her nineties who told me part of her story of survival during World War II. She told me about the concentration camp where her brother had been, the one she had survived, the one where, in her own words, her father’s body was burned. She was beautiful and I felt compelled to touch her soft hair as I told her how sorry I was for all she had suffered, and how thankful I was that I had met her.

Afterwards, I went into my father’s apartment and sat in his recliner and cried. I thought about things – literal physical things, the objects we gather and accumulate in a lifetime, some of which get passed on, others that are given away, still others that are lost or taken from us. I thought about a four-bedroom house that had become a studio apartment; and about my own boxes and bins of things gathered like treasures in my own basement. Will somebody one day read the dozens of journals I started keeping when I was ten years old, which have followed me in their boxes all these years? Will my photo albums or digital photos accurately tell the stories of who I was and who I became? Is there such thing as a true story, or are we constantly curating our memories, filtering what and how we want to remember through the lens of each present moment? How was I experiencing my father in that moment in his apartment, in light of where we were now and what still awaited us?

Do any of those things matter, or is it only the less tangible that will be remembered – distilled down to that one pure thing: LOVE?

That day, everywhere I turned there was music from the 1980s playing. I haven’t been able to escape the pull of my home town in the past month, so it seemed only fitting that the soundtrack following me matched the reality that every corner I turned held a memory.

I have a sewn-on patch of a rainbow on the knee of my jeans in that picture of my father carrying me on his shoulders. It reminded me that I always had patches on my pants, sometimes patches over patches. It reminded me of the transparent rainbow sticker I stuck on my bedroom window, which made things rainbow in my room when the sun shined through just right.

When I told my father about the photos I had looked through, he remembered the brown and yellow tie he wore as a child in his kindergarten more than 65 years ago. He remembered the name of the school.

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Heading to his apartment, I passed a man as I crossed the street who smiled hello. He said to me, “Another day in paradise.” It was warm outside and smelled like flowers, and as I kept walking I spotted a single tropical orange-yellow flower that, indeed, belonged in paradise.

The ten days I spent back home again weren’t easy, but they didn’t feel insurmountable. I may not have had much of a summer so far, but I knew I was exactly where I needed to be and that gave me peace. There was work to do there – big work, loving work. I am in awe of the things my sister and I have achieved as a team on behalf of our father, and the love and trust that made it safe and nurturing to have even the most difficult conversations. Once more, I was held and nourished and housed by my closest friends, the ones who know me most deeply, the ones who brought dinner and wine and chocolate at the end of a difficult day.

I couldn’t argue with that man as I crossed him in the street – he was right, it was beautiful there on that gorgeous perfect day in that lovely place where I grew up. I’m not sure what paradise is supposed to look like – I imagine the picture is different for everyone – but I wonder if maybe it is meant to contain some of the messy difficult stuff as well as the beautiful things. Maybe, even, the muck is the place where the beauty is able to reveal itself – like the love in my father’s eyes or the softness of his hand. I miss him now that I am so many miles away; I got used to spending each day with him. I am grateful for that time and it comforts me even more now to speak to him on the phone.

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When I finally returned home again to my family, my daughter hugged me for at least five minutes. She’d been at camp and we hadn’t seen each other for a month and it felt perfect to just hold her and stare into her sparkly eyes. Then I went upstairs, where my son was just falling asleep, and I whispered to ask if he wanted to cuddle. “Yah,” he whispered back, and I held him on the rocker for a long time, my nose nuzzling his curly hair and my hand on his soft cheek. It was the same softness as my father’s hand, and I felt in that moment the way in which there is no separation between my love for my children and my love for my father. And I cried quietly and exhaled all I had held since the beginning of summer, the surmountable-but-still-challenging stuff that called on my very best self to reveal herself.

It’s better with Mommy home, isn’t it?” my husband asked my son this morning. “Yah,” he replied. Then he said to me, “Mommy not going anywhere? Mommy stay here?

Yes, my love, Mommy stay here.

on humanness & love

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Far within me, where the memory of what I am is still unclouded, a little child is waking up and making an old man’s mask weep. (Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue)

I just got back from a two week trip back home with my son. Back home is where I’m from, where I grew up, but it’s not really home anymore, hasn’t been for a while. My sister and I moved our father into a skilled nursing facility during these two weeks, and I realized that I had just let go of my last remaining tie to my home town since he was now living in another city. It’s been twenty years since I’ve actually lived in my home town, but my childhood – both the easy breezy years and the more complicated ones – still reverberates so deeply there. Almost as if time travel is a possibility, in that way that all time is happening at once.

I walked outside there one night around 9pm and inhaled, and I immediately started to cry. It was the air, warm but not yet hot evening summer air. The smell of the place where I grew up. So deeply familiar it hit me within my cells and all of a sudden I was 10 years old again, riding my bicycle home from playing at a friend’s. I could even smell the swampy wetlands miles away on the bay, mixed with the bay leaves and pine and eucalyptus of Northern California. The smell of the dry golden hills around my flat suburb.

It wasn’t all messy, it wasn’t all complicated. There were some really good and simple years when I swam and biked and made mud pies and drank Slurpees from the 7/11. Ate ice cream from Baskin Robbins. Bought gum balls by the handful from the drug store back before all drug stores were chains.

I grew up in an insanely beautiful place. Large mature trees forming a ceiling of green as they meet each other in the center of a street. Green nestled by golden hills spotted with giant knotty old oak trees. Foggy mist cooling off very hot mornings, seagulls a bit off their course, reminding me that the ocean is just beyond those hills.

I could never afford to live now where I grew up, but I feel lucky that I got to be a kid there.

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I was struck daily during those two weeks away by this: That we are all so fragile and also so incredibly strong at the same time. I thought repeatedly about resilience, about the way life pushes and shoves and beats us down – and how we manage to bounce back up, hopefully stronger, wiser, kinder. I thought about kindness and love and patience, how much patience is required by compassion. I thought about being gentle with myself, because I am always reminding those I care about to be gentle with themselves.

It’s incredibly hard to watch my father lose his independence because of a degenerative disease that is not going to get better. It’s hard to see him need so much help to do basic things. I want to lash out at the son-of-a-bitch that is Parkinson’s for taking away his ability to trust his body, the strength of his legs, the words in his mouth. I want to make it all better but I can’t. The words of a geriatric counselor ring repeatedly in my ears: Remember to let your father have his own experience.

Something about the container of my childhood home town, reminding me of my father when he carried me on his shoulders as we flew kites, hung a basketball net above our garage, biked with me to get deli sandwiches or ice cream. Those memories were formed a long time ago but they remain deep in my cells. I imagine myself in my nineties able to summon them as if they were yesterday. My 96 year old great aunt could do that, become a little girl in her parents’ arms again just by closing her eyes.

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I turned 44 while I was in California. My son sang Happy Birthday with me in bed that morning and I opened cards from my husband and daughter who were far away, and from family near and far. I spent the afternoon with girlfriends I’ve known for many years, women my age and older who personify the grace and beauty of being able to hold strength and fragility simultaneously.

Our Supreme Court did the right thing today and voted in favor of giving all couples the right to marry and have their marriages recognized by every state in this country. Using the language of justice and freedom, they voted in favor of love – all love. I smile-cried reading about their decision.

That’s what it keeps coming back to for me – LOVE. My connection with my sister. The holding of my husband who video chatted with me while he was on another continent. The way my husband’s aunt and uncle supported and reassured me as my sister and I made big decisions for the care of our father. The love I feel for my father, which makes watching him struggle so damn hard, and which brings me peace knowing he is safe and cared for. The holding of my girlfriends who cared for (me and) my son on the days I was so busy with my dad. The compassion and understanding and unconditional love of some of my oldest friends, the ones who just know me regardless of time and distance apart. The love and light of my son, who is all smiles and cuddles, who kept me focused on goodness and laughter and silliness when I needed it most.

I think we get to be human – that we have no choice but to be human – with each other when we can see that it all comes down to love. I think when we let our humanness show – our fragile, delicate, vulnerable, messy, honest humanness – we give each other permission to do the same. To be both fragile and strong at the same time. To ask for help and also give support. To be genuine, sincere, real, even when we’re messy.

Especially when we’re messy.

almost time

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A mandala I made of my favorite quote by Leonard Cohen from the song, Anthem

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It’s almost June 10. Almost my Tikva’s seventh birthday. Almost the beginning of the two months of summer between the day she was born and the day she took her last breath in our arms.

During the first few years after Tikva died, those two months each year felt like they were engulfing my summer, taking away from me the possibility of truly savoring what had always been my favorite time of year. I wanted more than anything to just get to August 8, to return to the 10 months of the year that weren’t a daily reminder of the child I had lost. To be in a place where the loss of her didn’t overtake every cell of my being, every second of every day.

It hasn’t been like that in recent years. For the last two summers, in fact, I didn’t even realize it was August 7, the anniversary of her death, until I received a text or an email from a loved one wishing me a peaceful day and remembering my baby girl with me. It always moves me when someone remembers, when they reach out; and it surprises me when they remember before me.

But really, I am not so surprised. Her birthday will always matter, but the day she died holds less weight now. I think it’s because I don’t relate to Tikva simply as my child who died. She is my second daughter, one of my beloved children. She is the one I got to touch and hold and love in her body for a only short time, the one I will continue to love in my heart always. She has become – or or perhaps she always was – a part of every cell of my being. Because of that, the loss of her no longer overpowers me.

She is with me and absent. Inside me and very far away. Her story is in the past and will forever be told. I think that’s just how it is when your child dies before you.

Sometimes she feels more like an experience than a baby – I find myself talking about that time as, “During Tikva.” Because I was completely transformed by her, by her life, by the loss of her, and by the process and stretching and struggle and growth of the years since. I am not who I was before June 10, 2008. I am not who I was before January 23, 2008, when we first learned about her condition in-utero. I think I am better because of her. I think she helped me drop more deeply into who I get to be in this life.

It gets easier. The cracked and jagged edges get smoothed out a bit more with each year – like beach glass, eventually polished smooth and shiny after years of travel in both tranquil and tumultuous ocean waves. The sharp pain transforms into something that feels less raw, less fresh, as if it has been diluted with love.

On January 23, 2008, after the ultrasound that diagnosed the difficult and unclear road ahead for our daughter, I prayed in the classic sense probably for the first and only time in my life. I cried out, “Please don’t make me bury my daughter. I don’t know if I can survive burying my child.” But I did. I loved her and I buried her. And I did survive, and almost seven years have passed, and I am here. Still standing. Still loving.

And now, with the time that has passed, I can hold the hand of a friend who lost her child more recently and promise her with all my heart that she will get to a place where the jagged edges soften and the pain is consumed by love.

ode to teachers

French Kids

Kindergarten, 1976

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If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Those words have followed me since I was my daughter’s age. They are now infused in every cell of my being and I have probably said them – to myself and out loud – hundreds of times. I wonder if Mrs. Peters, my fifth grade teacher, had any idea all those years ago that I would carry her guiding motto, the one she reminded us of daily, with me so deeply.

I adored Mrs. Peters. She is the teacher I remember the most. She is the one I stayed in touch with long after college. I have no idea how old she was, but to my ten year old self, she felt ancient. I’m pretty sure she was only in her late fifties, maybe her early sixties. Certainly far from ancient, but just as certainly very wise.

Mrs. Peters loved to sing, and she was probably the most patriotic person I have ever met. Each morning we would pledge allegiance to the flag, then sing patriotic songs. Three years into living in America after moving from Europe when I was seven, I learned every American anthem ever written. I loved to sing, and those mornings were my favorite part of the day. I still remember every single word to every single one of those songs. The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, America the Beautiful, Home on the Range… On Fridays we sang other songs, songs we could choose. I don’t remember those as well, except an Irish song about cockles and mussels called Molly Malone.

Mrs. Peters read to us in the afternoons when all of our work was done – long chapter books that taught us about history and would take weeks to finish. Johnny Tremain, The Endless Steppe, and one about a stork in the steeple of a church. I would close my eyes as she read and imagine the scenes she described. It amazes me how vividly I still remember these stories, more than three decades later. Mrs. Peters taught us about the indigenous history of California, and we built a teepee in the classroom and ground acorns into flour. When the boys and girls were split into groups one afternoon, Mrs. Peters taught us girls about puberty, about our periods. She must’ve been teaching for a few decades by then because she still had a maxi pad belt in her teaching bag for that class.

Mrs. Peters was undaunted by bullies and obnoxious behavior in class. She was firm when she needed to be firm, loving when she needed to be loving. She loved books and would let us sit in the book corner during recess if that is where we wanted to be. She knew I loved to sing and invited me to be part of a small group of fifth graders who sang Sunrise, Sunset for the eighth grade graduation.

When I visited Mrs. Peters sometime after college, she had been retired for several years. She showed me a closet filled with shoe boxes – one for every year she had taught – and pulled down the one from my fifth grade year. In it were cards from students, essays we had written that she had kept, artwork we had made. I felt so loved as I sensed how deeply she cherished these memories. How deeply she cherished the hundreds of students she had known throughout her years of teaching.

I thanked her, that afternoon, and reminded her that I had carried If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well with me all the years since she had been my teacher. I still do.

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Today is the last day of fifth grade for my daughter. To celebrate, we had a class party, which means the kids ran around outside and consumed and burned off the sugar from cupcakes, donut cake, popsicles and juice boxes. We had a little ceremony where the students encircled their teacher and each of them told him why he is special. Her teacher has been teaching for over 20 years, and I can tell he loves what he does. I love being at my children’s schools – there is nothing like the aliveness of the energy in a school. There is nothing like children when they are learning and growing into increasingly conscious beings. There is nothing like watching in action the teachers I know my child will remember for the rest of her life – her Mrs. Peterses.

I don’t know if I could be a teacher – I get exhausted just raising my own two kids! But teachers are the human beings I respect and appreciate the most in the world. They are the ones my children spend most of their time with in a day. They are the ones who challenge them and stretch them and push them and guide them and cheer them on. They are the ones who prepare them for the next steps in their lives. They are the ones who find a way – no matter what – to teach each uniquely individual learner within the parameters of all that is expected of teachers by schools, districts and states; by teaching standards and testing requirements; by each child’s parents. Within the parameters of what each student needs during a year of their life.

It is sacred work. Holy work. To give a child confidence as a learner.

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To all my teachers, to all my children’s teachers, and to all my friends who are teachers: THANK YOU. Thank you for the HEART you give to your incredibly sacred and holy work.

the way we birth

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When I was preparing to give birth for the first time more than 11 years ago, I made a birth plan with my husband and our midwives. I deeply believed in my birth plan. I was going to have my baby naturally and at home. I was going to eat and drink if and when I wanted to. I was going to walk around my apartment freely, unencumbered by an IV. I was going to trust my body and my baby to know how to do this. I was going to breathe, as I’d learned in our homebirth class, for as long as it took. I was going to avoid bright hospital lights and cold floors, doctors I didn’t have a relationship with. I trusted myself, I trusted my baby, I trusted my partner, and I trusted my midwives.

And none of that trust changed. But the plan did.

I did labor at home – for 32 hours. In between contractions, which were all in my lower back, I took occasional bites of bagel with jam and drank juice diluted with water. I sat on the exercise ball in the shower with scalding water aimed at my back for so long that I had scars afterwards. An acupuncturist friend came around hour 28 and put 16 needles into my lower back for the pain. I got to 8 centimeters but no further, for hours.

Then I looked at my husband and our midwives and said with 100% conviction and clarity, “I want to go to the hospital.” It was noon on a Tuesday.

I left the dark cocoon of our bedroom for the first time since the previous day at 5:30am to get into the car. It hurt. And the outside world – going about its business as usual all around me – felt surreal, like it was moving full speed while I was in slow motion. My sister dropped us off, my husband got a wheelchair that I didn’t use because it hurt too much to sit and I’d already been sitting for 20 painful minutes. I walked into the room and lay down on the hospital bed. I got an IV and a monitor was wrapped around my belly.

When the anesthesiologist walked in, it was as if an angel had just entered. “You’ve been laboring for how long?” “32 hours,” I replied. “Let’s get you that epidural. We’ll skip your blood work and get on with it.” All these years later, I can’t begin to describe the sensation when the medicine began to take away the pain I had been in for a day and a half. All I remember is relief, and the colorful woven hat that the anesthesiologist wore on his head.

Finally able to relax, I dilated to 10 centimeters and the doctor said I could push whenever I felt ready. Then she stepped back and let me do the work, guided still by my midwives. My daughter came out an hour later, pink and beautiful, head covered in black hair, right hand coming out “fight the power” style immediately after her head. She was pregnant herself, the doctor, 32 weeks with her first. She was a third year resident so less experienced than my midwives, who had between them attended so many births. She watched the whole thing, respecting the relationship I had developed with my midwives during my pregnancy, and the work I had done already at home.

My daughter almost did a flip off the little metal table as they checked her Apgar scores. They gave her tens, clearly this one was just fine. Four hours after she was born, the three of us were back home in the bed where I had labored. Parents. A radiantly healthy energetic baby who hated swaddles and slings and anything constricting from the second she was born. We were a family of three.

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With everything I’ve experience related to birth since then, I can’t help but view my first daughter’s birth through rose colored glasses. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it had turned out so well. Immediately following her birth, however, I gave myself a tremendous amount of grief that I had given up” and stopped laboring at home, that I had chosen to have an epidural and go to the hospital. I told myself that if I had just kept going, I could have had the homebirth I had planned.

I held this disappointment for two and a half years, until I took an 8-week midwifery course with one of the world’s most renowned homebirth midwives. I sat with her during one of our lunch breaks and told her my daughter’s birth story, and I asked her if she could tell me what had happened – why I hadn’t been able to progress past 8 centimeters no matter what I did, no matter how much time went by and how many contractions I endured, no matter what my midwives tried or what position they guided me to labor in. And her eyes got wide and her body got really still and then she popped out, “Deep transverse arrest!” “Deep transverse arrest?” “Deep transverse arrest! Go home and research that this week and you can teach the class about it when we meet again.” And I did.

A deep transverse arrest is when the baby’s head is engaged a little off in the pelvis so that its head doesn’t hit the cervix quite right. This means that the cervix, which relies on the pressure of the baby’s head along with the mother’s contractions to open fully, can’t open fully. My daughter’s head was turned just slightly, and her right hand was next to her left cheek for most of my labor (causing the painful back labor). Her head was engaged enough to get me to 8 centimeters, but no further. And with each contraction, instead of relaxing to open and create space for her to move, I literally contracted and tightened and she got more wedged in.

“You were right to go to the hospital and have an epidural, because then you could relax and make space for her slightly turned head to shift into the right position. Your body knew what it needed and you listened,” she told me, this decades-long experienced homebirth midwife. In that moment, all of my doubts and disappointment in myself dissolved and I felt peace.

****

It amazes me how much we are capable of torturing ourselves as mothers about the ways in which we failed to follow our birth plans, our supposed hopes and dreams for the beginnings of our babies’ lives. It amazes me how deeply my ego was invested in the outcome of my plan – and how much of it all is just that: ego. The idea that we can actually plan how our children’s births will go, that we have any control.

I planned two homebirths and had none. A few years after my daughter was born, I miscarried another pregnancy at 10 weeks. A few years after that, I was pregnant again with Tikva, and again I planned to birth at home. And again the universe laughed. Tikva was diagnosed in utero at 21 weeks with a life threatening birth defect. She would not only be born in the hospital, but she would be born in the operating room, so that a team of neonatologists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and nurses could be prepared for anything she needed. So that she could be put on a ventilator within minutes of her birth because she wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own.

An hour into my labor, I asked for an epidural. My labor was short – just a few hours long – and for weeks after Tikva was born I second-guessed myself again, thinking I had not needed that epidural, could have birthed her without it. But this is the thing: In that moment, I was terrified. I was about to release from the safety and warmth of my body a baby I knew would not be able to breathe or eat on her own. Inside me, she had been safe – I breathed for her and ate for her and could hold and protect her; outside, she was not. She could live for just a few minutes after her birth, or she could live a whole lifetime – none of us had any idea what was ahead, and I was scared. And I was stressed. And I did not want to be distracted by the pain of labor. And I didn’t think this through in actual thoughts, I just knew. And I fell instantly in love with that anesthesiologist too, an amazing third year resident who was so gentle and precise, and who gave me just enough medicine so that I was still able to feel the moment when Tikva came out.

The second she was out and the cord was cut, she was whisked away through a window in the wall into another room where she was put on a ventilator and given paralytic medication so she wouldn’t destabilize herself. I would really see her about an hour or two later for the first time, intubated, feeding tube in her nose, IV in her arm. My beautiful girl.

And then, our real story together began. 58 days long and every day since she breathed her last challenging breath almost 7 years ago. For those few months we were a family of four.

****

Three years later I was pregnant with twins. Twins! Twins that came to us with help and with work. Twins who were all promise, all hope, all healing – for their mother, their father and their sister. Twins who would bring a beautiful whirlwind of baby energy into our home. Twins who would be closely monitored to ensure a safe pregnancy, ultrasounds and amnio and bloodwork and frequent appointments. Ten weeks in, one of them stopped growing. At 18 weeks – on Valentine’s Day – I no longer felt the other one move. A few days later, I went to the hospital to be induced and 24 hours later I delivered my very small babies-to-be. And a few hours later, after holding the one who had grown enough that he was fully formed, only just the size of my hand, we left the hospital without our babies. These beings I had also labored to birth, whose ashes I would sprinkle on the same beach where I had walked during the very beginning of my very first labor so many years before.

****

I birthed my son in my heart, and another woman that I will forever be grateful to conceived and nurtured and birthed him from her body. He came out 6 weeks early by C-section. He was tiny and he was perfect. He always breathed on his own and he learned to take a bottle in a few weeks and we brought him home. He never breastfed, but I nourished him with my love and formula till he was ready for food. Two years later, he eats like a teenager and is so heavy I can barely carry him.

And we have been, once again since his birth two years ago, a family of four, surrounded by the beloved spirits of the babies we lost.

****

This is the thing: You may be able to set an intention for how you’d like things to go, and you may be lucky when it all goes “right,” but it’s all just so random and out of our hands. I thought I was responsible for how healthy and strong my first daughter was, that it was all because of how well I had taken care of myself during pregnancy. But then that means I was also responsible for how fragile and sick my second daughter had been. I have no idea why her diaphragm didn’t form correctly, and neither do the doctors. I have no idea why my twins didn’t make it, or why I miscarried all those years ago and again before we adopted our son. What I know now, though, is that when it does work out well, and that healthy baby is born – it’s an incredible amazing miracle of life. And that miracle is as arbitrary as when things go another way.

I cry tears of joy and relief every time I learn about a baby who has been born healthy. If I know a friend is in labor, I take a deep breath and I exhale when I hear that all went well.

****

There’s a way we talk in our culture about birth after it’s happened, and I think that way is skewed. I’ve heard it from men who have witnessed and supported their partners’ labors, referring to the women as warriors because they labored naturally, at home in a birthing tub, without pain medication or medical intervention, and gave birth to a healthy 9 pound baby that immediately knew how to suckle and nurse. I’ve also heard it from women who have been through labor – talking, like I did, about the ways in which they felt they had failed – because they hadn’t been able to do it naturally, because they had needed help, or because their babies had died. So we are warriors if it goes one way, and we are failures if it goes another. Or we are warriors in the eyes of everyone but our own critical selves.

But this is the thing: We are all warriors. We are warriors when we birth, however we birth. We are warriors when we need help to birth. We are warriors whether or not we nurse. We are warriors whether we wear our babies or sleep with our babies; whether or not they sleep through the night. We are warriors when our babies are conceived with assistance. We are warriors when we are not able to conceive or carry a baby to term. We are warriors when someone else carries our babies for us. We are warriors when we miscarry. We are warriors when our babies are born still. We are warriors when we mother by caring for our babies’ graves. We are warriors when we choose not to have babies and we love in other ways. We are warriors when we are allies for other women. We are warriors in how we nurture the world.

We are warriors because, in some way, we choose to love. Whatever that love looks like. However it is birthed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the warriors out there. I hope you know who you are.

opening the ivory tower doors

Ivory Tower

Deeply imprinted into my psyche, the Ivory Tower from my favorite and most-viewed movie from adolescence, The Neverending Story

When I was in my mid-twenties, I began my career in the social sector working in philanthropy. I worked in a foundation that helped progressive individuals give money away to social change organizations all over the world. The internet was barely a thing back then – I think I had an AOL email address – and I got the job looking for an administrative assistant position in the newspaper. When I was called for an interview, I asked if they could send me information about the organization so that I could learn more about what they did. I didn’t know anything about foundations, about donors, about non-profit organizations and NGOs, or about grantmaking. A few days later a packet arrived in my mailbox – it was a grants list of the organizations the foundation’s donors had supported in the previous year, but it only listed the name of the donor funds and the names of their grantees. That’s not a lot of information to explain the work of an organization if you don’t have the ability to look them up online, and online didn’t really exist yet.

So off I went to my interview, and I sat in a small room with two of the foundation’s program officers – I didn’t know what a program officer was, either, and they were kind of intimidating. I was 24. The intimidating program officer who chose me to be her assistant has become one of my closest friends and most cherished mentors. From her and my other colleagues at the foundation – over four and a half years and afterwards when I branched out on my own – I learned everything I know about the world of giving and the incredible non-profit organizations that do so much to sustain and balance out our world. By the time I left the foundation to start a consulting practice working with non-profit and philanthropic organizations, I had become a program officer. Talk about the school of life.

During one of my first weeks working there, I was asked to contact a list of past grant recipients to ask for their reports on how they had used their grants so far. I left phone messages for the ones who didn’t answer, telling them I was calling from the foundation and could they please call me back. In under an hour, all of my phone messages had been returned. I was stunned, and when I shared this with my boss, she smiled and said, “That’s because they know you have the money.” “But I don’t have the money,” I replied. “I’m just an assistant.” “But you’re connected to the people who do, and money = power.” And she explained to me that, in our work, we were trying to redistribute some of that power to make things more equal – at least that was the goal of philanthropy.

We had a staff training during my time working at the foundation, and the theme was privilege. I’d worked there a few years by then, and I was aware of the incredible privilege of the philanthropists we worked with. But we weren’t talking about their privilege, we were talking about ours. It was uncomfortable. We were asked to think of the ways in which we had grown up with privilege, and no matter how rich or poor each of us were, just by virtue of being there, gainfully employed doing meaningful work managing great resources, all of us were privileged. And my list of privilege was so long, I realized, especially after listening to some of my colleagues share the challenges they had grown up with in disadvantaged communities or as immigrants or as people of color.

Privilege: I grew up speaking two languages. I went to schools with small classrooms and brand new textbooks. I grew up around technology years before technology was in every home. I grew up in a town influenced by a major university. We owned our home. I got to travel all over the world. I had a doctor and a dentist and a retainer for my overbite. My mom took me to her hairdresser to get my hair cut. My dad helped me buy a used car when I turned 16 by getting me a summer job filing receipts in his company. College was paid for and my grades and activities got me into every school I applied to. I grew up in a home filled with books and art and music. I had piano lessons and saxophone lessons, tried ballet and jazz dance, took art classes. I grew up in a safe place free from violence where I could ride my bike or take the bus all over town without a care. I had friends whose families came from all over the world – doctors and professors and researchers and tech executives. I had an allowance. I went to summer camp. I am white.

Privilege.

What an ivory tower I had always lived in! And what an ivory tower did I now find myself in, giving money away to communities in need. Those words: In need. They made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like the dynamic – that some people have and others don’t, and no matter how much we might try to redistribute the resources, there are always some with privilege and some without. And there are levels of privilege – we each fall somewhere on a continuum.

****

I still think a lot about privilege. I think about it as the white mother to a black son. I think about our choice to move to a town with higher property taxes and excellent public schools for our children. I think about it every time I go to a doctor’s appointment or to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and I am able to afford my co-pay. I think about it as I make the monthly payment for our mortgage, for our cars. I think about it as I look at the packing list for my daughter’s summer camp.

As a child, my favorite subject in school was social studies – that wonderful topic that encapsulated all things having to do with human beings and societies: history, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology. The things I was most curious about. I wanted to be a psychologist, and I would watch Afterschool Specials and any Nine O’Clock Movie that had to do with a social issue: mental illness, addiction, homelessness, school reform, runaway teens. It was the eighties during Reagan, the years of This is your brain (camera zooms in on a whole intact egg). This is your brain on drugs (camera zooms in on egg frying in a pan).

I entered college as a psychology major, at some point changed to anthropology, changed again to sociology, and finished with a BA in history; so I got a nice well rounded liberal arts education and have done absolutely nothing related to my degree. But what draws me, what compels me, hasn’t changed since I was my daughter’s age. Social studies is still my favorite subject; it’s what I think about, read about, write about and try to teach my children about. It’s what I’ve been blessed for 20 years to have as the focus of my work.

I spent time in my daughter’s fifth grade class this morning, helping a group of kids with their end-of-the-year presentations about community and global issues. I was in social studies heaven. 11 is an incredible age because you can start to talk about the grey areas, the nuance in between black and white. You can start to talk about the complexity of issues like gang violence and global responses to natural disasters. You can start to talk about privilege.

****

I thought about privilege a lot last night. I was the moderator for a local UNICEF event about the Eliminate Project, whose goal it is to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus worldwide through UNICEF’s incredible immunization and health programs. We watched a video and listened to first-hand stories about babies dying – 140 each day – from this vaccine preventable disease. I moderated a panel of speakers who spoke about how entirely possible it is to completely eliminate this disease – and how this has already been achieved in 36 countries, with 23 remaining. I thought about places where babies die each day from poverty and violence and lack of health care and sanitation. I thought of my own baby who had died, and all of the resources we were able to rally to give her every possible chance during her two months of life.

And I thought about tetanus here in the U.S., where babies don’t die of this bacteria that lives in soil. I remembered getting my tetanus booster as an older child, again as an adult. I thought about a conversation I had with a friend when my daughter was a toddler, how this friend who had been a pediatrician explained to me that tetanus isn’t just in rusty nails, but also in the dirt all around us.

I thought a lot last night about how privileged we are in this country to even be able to have a conversation about whether or not it is safe or necessary to vaccinate our children. We don’t see on a daily basis the diseases that kill children and adults in developing countries; some, like polio, which used to exist here. We don’t see an infant suffering from or dying from tetanus, so we have the luxury to actually consider whether or not our children need that vaccine. I know how much I wrestled with those questions when my daughter was little.

I just felt privileged, and I sat with that feeling as I drove home last night. And I’m sitting with it today. It still makes me uncomfortable – things that are unjust, unfair, unequal make me uncomfortable. And to be honest, I hope that never stops, because the moment I get too comfortable is the moment I stop caring, and I don’t plan to stop caring.

It makes me feel grateful, too. Grateful for my health. Grateful for clean water and a warm bed and my home and abundant nourishing food that is refrigerated. Grateful for the washing machine that spins my bedsheets as I write. Grateful for my children’s pediatrician, always available. Grateful for my safe neighborhood. Grateful for the school bus that picks up my daughter in the morning to take her to her wonderful school. Grateful for green space. Grateful for the community and culture and diversity I get to be a part of.

And grateful to be able to play my very small part to make things just a little bit more just, fair and equal.

the myth of perfect, or: you are not alone

GalFlying

I sat down to write yesterday, laptop on a pillow on my lap, in the armchair in my office space off the kitchen. The house was quiet and the birds sang to the spring outside. It took about 3 minutes before I surrendered and let my eyes close, because that is all they wanted to do. I wasn’t completely asleep, but I wasn’t completely awake either. Catnapping with my reading glasses on, laptop now closed on its pillow, half aware of how good it felt to just rest, half aware that I should be doing more with my precious time. I dozed for about 15 minutes, then went to take a walk around the block. That will wake me up, I thought. As I walked, I wondered why I was so tired at 11 o’clock in the morning. No answer came except, Just tired, no reason. No need to figure it out.

I’m going to be 44 in a month and a half. Not much different psychologically than 43, I am still officially middle aged. But I am aware of the process of aging in a way I don’t think I have been at other times in my life. The grays in my hair and the tiny lines around my eyes are not new, but their presence is in sharper focus, consistent. Sometimes I still get pimples, which feels like a cosmic joke, my body saying, Hey, at least you’re still a little bit of an adolescent. But what’s different at almost-44 is this: I don’t really trip out about it all very much anymore, not in the way I used to.

A wise friend who is now in his mid-seventies once told me – as I bemoaned the auto-immune challenges I have lived with for 20 years – that it is an illusion to think that it’s possible to attain perfect health while occupying a physical and very human body. Think about that: There is no such thing as perfect health. Bodies are machines, and machines get old and slow down and start acting up. And some act up long before they are supposed to – like my Tikva’s fragile little body that struggled so hard simply to get enough breath; like my friends who have courageously battled cancer in their thirties and forties.

It’s liberating, though, the idea that I don’t need to get to perfection because perfection doesn’t exist. Liberating to accept that I can still feel good – even thrive – within the container of an imperfect, fragile and slightly beat down body. I look at my 11-year-old daughter and see myself at her age, before the regular beat down of life had begun and I never even thought of the state of my health because it simply was. I think of that time and realize just how lucky I am that I could take for granted what is not always guaranteed – healthy and abundant food, warm clothing, shelter, safety, community, friends, family, love. Health.

****

I used to search for solutions, grasp at ways to heal from all that ailed me, ways to achieve the mysterious perfect, radiant health I was convinced everyone else around me had attained. I haven’t given up on the idea of radiance, the idea of thriving. But I’ve let go of perfect. And I no longer attach my wellbeing to a specific way of eating-being-living. I get annoyed, now, at the thousands of messages all around that promise complete healing of fill in the blank if only you eat fill in the blankavoid fill in the blank and do fill in the blank every day, because if it worked for fill in the blank it will definitely work for you and me, guaranteed. I don’t trust it anymore, not simply because I’ve tried it all, but more because the only thing that’s been consistent for me no matter what magic bullet I’ve tried is that I get neurotic and obsessive and end up feel deprived because I can’t enjoy the things I love. I used to follow a doctor and author on Facebook who wrote about hormones and health for women. Once she posted on her feed the five things to stay away from in order to feel great and be healthy. They were: sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy and alcohol. I had to laugh because… Really? Honestly, what is the point of life if you can’t enjoy chocolate and cheese? I stopped following her feed.

I can’t help but be in awe of just how fragile we are in these temporary vessels; how incredibly miraculous it is that so much works when it works; how impossibly difficult it can be when it doesn’t; and how every single one of us – when we are truly honest with ourselves and with each other – struggles with something. There have been stories out there lately, brave coming out stories where people of all ages write about their struggles with illness, sharing on Buzzfeed or HuffPost or Salon about what they have always kept private because they thought they were the only ones struggling – because we can feel so much shame about being sick. The thing is, there is no failure in struggling in our bodies or with our emotions, and there should be no shame. Our culture is afraid terrified of death, and so we shy away from looking illness straight-on. We deny it, we chase after the illusion of perfect health – the magic cure that will bring perfection – and we feel like failures when we don’t achieve it. We keep our illnesses to ourselves, we feel alone. Until one brave young woman posts a picture of her colostomy bag on Instagram, leading hundreds of other young people to come out publicly as courageously as she did; and hopefully some of the shame dissolves and we feel less alone in our fragility. Did you see them, those posts? I couldn’t take my eyes off them – these gorgeous young people who have struggled, some since childhood, with irritable bowel disease, a lifetime of hiding their shame and their challenges with a hidden illness while they struggled to simply feel well. And did you see the incredibly badass pictures of women baring their mastectomy scars; turning society’s shame on its ass, turning it into pride, into strength?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: The moment I have honestly and compassionately shared my own struggles with another person, I’ve let that person know that it is safe, acceptable and normal if they are struggling too. I’ve let them know that struggle is easier when you aren’t going through it alone. I’ve let them know that shame has no place where there is compassion.

****

I am not an athlete. I’ve tried many things, some for extended periods of time – boxing, rock climbing, dance, pilates, yoga, resistance training, running – but I’m not someone who craves exercise and keeping at it is not where I am most disciplined. In spite of this, though, I still feel active. At 5’5″ and 118 pounds, I can lift my 28 pound son up and down the stairs with one arm, full laundry basket in the other. Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely capable of tripping myself out with plenty of I should exercise more, my legs are flabby, I should eat more leafy greens, the pimples are hormonal and I need to get my hormones in balance and eat less chocolate, I’m scared of what the medications I take might do to my body long-term, etc. etc. etc. All that goes along with the house is dirty and I need to mop, I should be writing every day instead of a few times a week, tomorrow I will be more patient when my children are whiny, I need to make more time to be outside, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, etc. etc. etc. I’m human and the nag of perfection still whispers in my ears too.

I try to be gentle, though – something I hear myself asking my friends on a regular basis: Are you being gentle with yourself? What did you do today that is good for you? I try to remember to praise myself for all I do, for all I am. I try to express gratitude for my health even when it feels tenuous. I thank my (flabby) legs for carrying me (and my son) up and down the stairs, for walking me around the block. I try to let myself nap in my chair if that is what my body needs, and I enjoy a cup of coffee on those mornings when my son decides to wake up and stay awake at 4:30am.

To my friends and those I don’t know who are struggling, who want nothing more than to feel better in your bodies, who are fighting for your lives, who are feeling in a deep place all the pain that is everywhere around us:

I honor you.

I honor your struggle.

I honor your wellbeing.

I honor your good days and your shitty ones.

I honor the shame you long to release.

I honor your deep desire to feel better.

I honor your perfect imperfection.

fresh spring air

I attended a funeral yesterday for someone very dear in our community. Her death was unexpected, accidental. Her time came too soon. It was a graveside funeral attended by so many. She was such a presence in the community that it’s impossible right now to imagine it without her. She was one of the first people I met here almost two years ago, instantly welcoming. She embraced my children and they loved her right back.

Hers was the third graveside funeral I have attended in my lifetime. The last one was for my baby daughter, Tikva, almost seven years ago. My most vivid imprint from that day was that her coffin was so small that the man from the funeral home carried it in his arms, without the gurney he had brought that is used for larger coffins. The first graveside funeral I went to was in Paris almost 20 years ago when I traveled with my father to be with our family as we buried a patriarch, my beloved great uncle. The other funerals I’ve attended have all been indoors, in a chapel or synagogue or church.

When I was in eighth grade, after a fierce battle with cancer, my grandmother died just a few months before my bat mitzvah. She was a Holocaust survivor and her determination and fight showed in how long she survived with pancreatic cancer. I loved her so much; being in her presence was like being enveloped in love and nurturing. She knit, she crocheted, she cooked, she baked, she hugged. It was April when she died and the grave diggers were on strike, so she wasn’t buried until a few weeks later. My mom didn’t let me go to the cemetery that day, I’m not sure why. She said it was enough that I had been at her service at the funeral home a few weeks before. It didn’t feel like enough to me. Perhaps there is some kind of closure in seeing a loved one’s body lowered into the ground, and something inside me knew I needed that. I had dreams for years afterwards that I carried my grandmother’s coffin around, looking for a place to bury it.

When I was a freshman in high school, a friend took his own life on the train tracks behind the school. I remember the cops thought a homeless person had been killed by the train, because it was 1986 and my friend wore a trench coat and dyed his hair black, and only homeless people wore trench coats, right? I remember the minister at the church service wore a belt buckle that said “BOB.” I think Pink Floyd was played.

I’ve been to two viewings at Catholic funerals, but only entered the room where the deceased lay at one of them. Viewings are unfamiliar to most Jews, whose dead are buried naked except for a muslin shroud and sometimes a prayer shawl, in a simple pine box, and caskets are always closed.

****

At one point yesterday, close to the end of the service, I moved away from the crowd and looked down the hill, listening to one of the rabbis as he spoke so beautifully. I don’t know what I was thinking about exactly, but it felt as if I were holding all of the deaths I had experienced in the past and all the deaths that awaited in the future in that one present moment. I took a deep breath, then another. Cemeteries have always felt strangely peaceful to me, especially on sunny days. Birds flew overhead, a fuzzy caterpillar walked on the grass and paused for a moment next to a man’s shoe, a turtle swam in the man made lake nearby. At my feet was a headstone for a man named Sol who had died in 2002 at the age of 92. I hope I get at least 92 years.

There is so much I don’t know about what awaits me, but that doesn’t really scare me. It’s kind of freeing to accept all I do not know. I go about my days hoping I will get so many others. Then I stop to pause in moments like these – standing graveside waiting to help shovel dirt over the burial place of a friend – and I think about how precious life is, how finite, how miraculous. In Tikva I learned that some souls do all of the work of an entire lifetime in 58 days, while others need decades. From my friend who was buried yesterday, I am reminded to live fully, to love unconditionally, and to show gratitude for how precious it all is and how lucky I am to be able to take another deep breath of fresh spring air.

Rest in peace, M. I will miss you.

wired for love

Love is all you need

“The only map of your right life is written on your soul at its most peaceful, and the only sure compass is your heart at its most open.” ~Martha Beck

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What did you come here to do? What is that thing at the core of your being that most vividly expresses who you are?

Did you come to dance with confident abandon? Did you come to nurture others? Did you come to make the world more beautiful with your art, with your poetry, with your song?

What drives you? What pulls you? What moves you along the road of challenge and growth and expansion?

Are you driven by connection? Are you drawn to success? How do you know you have succeeded?

Are you wired for love?

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I know this about myself: Love is what guides me, it is my North Star. In everything and always. Love is at the heart of all that matters to me. I think I have always know this at my core; but at this time, in this place, I am sure.

In the weeks leading to our wedding, my husband and I were asked by a Jewish teacher, What is the one word that best describes the other person for you? My husband, in my eyes, was calm. To him, I was caring. I believe in these, believe that they are more than just a representation of what each of us needed from the other.

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Beatles music was the anthem of my childhood. I spent hours lying belly down on the shag carpet of our living room, Beatles songs playing while I looked at every detail of their vinyl album covers and followed along with the lyrics. George Harrison was my favorite, for me the most handsome Beatle. I preferred Paul’s voice to John’s, but some of John’s songs were my favorites. I could sing along to practically every song on every album with every member of my family. We always joined together on the shoop in Come Together, no matter where we were in our one-story house, where the walls were paper thin and sound traveled freely. I remember shooping together in the car on road trips when I was very little in France. I took to heart John’s reminder that love is all you need. Paul guided me to let it be when life felt heavy. Rocky Raccoon would invoke images in my mind inspired by the westerns I watched on TV with my dad. One day I might have to write a book titled, The Story of My Life in Beatles Songs, something like the Sgt. Pepper movie from 1978, which caused a short-lived crush on Peter Frampton when it played on TV in fourth grade.

In the months after my daughter Tikva died 58 days after she was born, we asked each other what should go on her headstone besides her name and the dates of her short but huge life. As the mother of a dead child, creating my daughter’s headstone was a way in which I could express my love, a way I could still mother her, call out to the universe that she will always be my child. A way of honoring the greatest lesson she taught me – I believe the most important lesson I will ever learn: how to love unconditionally.

Following our first meeting with the owner of the headstone company, sitting at an all you can eat salad bar with my husband, it was clear what those words would be:

Love is all you need.

The Beatles had played in the children’s hospital OR the day the doctors took our fragile daughter to another floor for an echocardiogram. Hey Jude, Let It Be, and All You Need Is Love, one song after another guiding the medical team. Her eyes were open so wide during that procedure as she experienced the shock of being in a place that wasn’t her small warm bed in the NICU, doctors and nurses all around her. I was afraid for her, I wanted to hold her and comfort her, put her at ease – something I couldn’t do because she was in such fragile condition most of the time and even a mama’s hug could do her harm. I had to step back against the wall and let the doctors do their job in that room.

So I stood back and listened to the music. I listened to Paul’s reminder and thought about the irony that a Jewish girl would feel such a connection to Mother Mary because of her lifelong connection to a song. I focused on love and I watched my tiny daughter in that big space, and I looked at my husband who had also been listening beside me.

Of course the Beatles are playing, my husband’s eyes told me. Of course, my eyes spoke back.

I rely on love with every fiber of my being. I rely on the love of others who have guided my way through their example and caring for almost 44 years. I rely on the love within to strengthen me during trying times. I rely on the love that I am in order to find my way forward. I try to shine love, reflect love, be love.

Sometimes I forget. Other times I remember. I know I have succeeded when I feel peaceful, trusting, connected.

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I traveled back home with my family recently to celebrate Passover with everyone. Back home is where I grew up, where my husband grew up, where our daughters were born. It’s where most of our extended families live. Back home is familiar, the place that will always hold a piece of my heart. Back home is one of the most beautiful places on earth – I will never deny that. But it’s not the place that pulls me anymore, because for me home is where I am now, where my husband and children are, where we have made our home. What pulls me now about back home is our family and those I call my framily. My people whom I’ve loved for a very long time. And the Pacific Ocean.

IMG_6144I went with my father to visit Tikva’s grave during our visit. It was a sunny spring day with only a few clouds in the blue sky and a small breeze. As is his tradition, my father read Goodnight Moon to his granddaughter, as he had during his visits to the hospital. As is my tradition, I brought a rose from the bush we planted with her placenta in the garden of our aunt and uncle. There was a golden beetle taking a walk around the base of her headstone, like the scarab that represented eternal life in the tombs of ancient Egyptian kings.

Of course.

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My father told me the most beautiful story one day when I was with him. It had been a tiring day for him, but the grandchildren playing around him – my daughter and son and niece – brought light and peace. At one point we sat down together, away from the busy-ness, and he asked, “Do you want to hear a story?” His dark eyes got incredibly clear and focused and he started. It was a love story from when he was 21 years old, on his way from Greece to Israel. It was the mid-1960s and a romantic and revolutionary time to be moving to a kibbutz in Israel. He told me about a young woman he met on the ferry who lived with a disease she’d had her whole life. He didn’t remember what exactly, but it required ongoing care and blood transfusions. He saw her just a few times after they arrived in Israel, then fell out of touch.

Listening, I marveled at the clarity in my father’s eyes, which had seemed tired earlier that day. His words came easily as he told me this long and beautiful story, more easily than they come sometimes because of the Parkinson’s he courageously lives with. I wondered why this experience had come back to him then, 50 years later. He spoke about this woman, this young love, as if with some regret that he had not done more to love her for a longer time. I reminded him that he didn’t know then what he knows now, that he was only 21 years old, barely out of his teens. There was such compassion in his telling, as if now he understood what it is like to live with a disease.

I love my father more than the world. I always have. Without knowing it, he created for me from very early on my idea of the perfect man. Loyal and nurturing and dedicated and worldly and smart and soulful and handsome, so very handsome. He introduced me to westerns and science fiction, taught me history and politics and multiplication tables, brought me with him on planes to Europe, hung a basketball net above the garage for me to play with, brought me Playmobil and Legos and Kinder eggs from Europe on his business trips, took us to get donuts and sit on the roof of the car to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July, took me on a bike ride around town to teach me how to navigate using a map, helped me buy my first car. After my mother left him alone with two daughters when he was about my age, he did everything in his power to keep our lives stable. My father helped teach me what it means to love.

It’s not easy to watch your parents age. It’s hard to do so without being hit with the thought that one day they will be gone. I know many who have already lost parents. During our visit back home, my husband pointed out to the extended family how much was the same as when he was a child, except that now we fill the shoes of our parents, and they fill the shoes of their parents, and the kids… well, they are the new generation who get to be the kids. The constant throughout time is the gaggle of cousins – this time ages two to eleven – playing together and chasing each other around the house; good and abundant food; and love.

It’s the love that is eternal.