cracked

Family at Brown AME church

Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, AL, central to the movement for Voting Rights

During my senior year of college I wrote my honors thesis about my family’s history in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust. A year later, during a mostly solo seven-month journey through Europe and Israel, I traveled to Lodz, and went on to Warsaw, Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps. It was 1994 and I was 23 years old, and I traveled this piece of my trip with my best friend. I wouldn’t meet my husband for another five years, but I remember feeling unexpectedly victorious as I walked the tracks into Birkenau, toward the crumbling brick remains of the crematoria, dreaming of the Jewish man I would one day marry and raise Jewish children with. Another generation. I thought about how happy that would make my grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps, who had died when I was 13. (I know she smiled the day my husband was ordained as a rabbi.)

Walking on those tracks that the Jews in cattle cars had ridden toward their imminent deaths felt like the most powerful vindication to the evil forces and hateful humans who had tried to exterminate my family and my people. I found myself laughing because they had failed, because I was alive, two generations later, and my line would continue. I married a man whose family were also survivors, who came from a town just 30 kilometers from Lodz, where my family had lived for generations before the war. I like to think we might have met in a different way, in a different place, regardless of Hitler. Besheret. Meant to be.

Those two experiences – unraveling the untold stories of my family as I researched my thesis, learning about those who were killed by the Nazis and those who survived, and returning to the places where they had lived and where so many had died – were cathartic and healing. They were also infuriating and disheartening, because I knew I could never recover so much of what had been lost, and because I saw the way the Holocaust had inflicted a sharp and jagged crack in my family, one that has become a profound part of its legacy. One that still impacts who we are.

What I didn’t know that day walking down the tracks of Birkenau at age 23 was that I would, almost 20 years later, adopt a black son. And that the sharp and jagged crack of my family story would intersect with the sharp and jagged crack of his own history – one he is still, at age four, too young to comprehend.

Edmund Petus Bridge

Named for a Confederate general, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the beginning of the march for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in 1965, and also the site of Bloody Sunday, when nonviolent protestors were violently assaulted by police.

We just returned from a family trip to Alabama to visit the Civil Rights Trail between Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. We’ve been living in the South, in Atlanta, for four years, touching Civil Rights and the country’s dark history of racial injustice against black people a little more closely than we did during our years growing up in California. But I wanted to know more, to touch more, to face more, to understand more about my son’s story – about my country’s story. So we set off with intention for all four of us – not just our black son, who is just starting to see the difference in the color of our skins, but our biological teenage daughter and ourselves, their white parents.

Foot Soldier

The Foot Soldier statue at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL. There is a fascinating podcast about the statue at http://www.revisionisthistory.com.

I am filled with images from our journey, of the Civil Rights sites we visited and the stories we heard about the Voting Rights March between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Of the juxtaposition of Civil Rights and Civil War that is ever present in the South – Confederate flags honoring the fallen soldiers buried in the cemetery in Selma, monuments to Confederate heroes celebrated for their valor in the struggle for “states’ rights,” (or the right to own other humans). Heroes who went on to don white hooded robes and lynch those who had recently been “freed.”

Confederate Monument

Monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Civil War hero and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Old Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, AL

But this is the image that remains with me: We are in Cahawba, the ghost town that remains of what was the original capital of Alabama in the 1800s. A few fallen down houses remain, surrounded by barbed wire, one inhabited by the descendant of slaves as late as 1995. The slave quarters of a now-erased grand mansion remain, spookily boarded up but recently whitewashed with fresh paint.

Slave Quarters

Slave Quarters, Old Cahawba Ghost Town

We make our way through a field to what was the slave cemetery, and follow the guide on a piece of paper to the ten graves that are marked with numbers. We read that these ten are only the graves whose occupants are known, but that the cemetery has hundreds of other unmarked graves where people whose skin is brown like my son’s rest. You know you are passing one because the earth there is more sunken than its surrounding soil. It’s hot and damp because it is July in the South, and it is incredibly quiet. We are the only ones there.

Amelia Headstone

Celie Craig Headstone

Old Cahawba Slave Cemetery

My son runs ahead looking for the next marker, proud to show us he knows his numbers. My black son whose ancestors were abducted from their people and their homes and came to America on slave ships. My black son whose ancestors were sold at auction, enslaved. My black son whose ancestors labored their entire lives and were beaten mercilessly and separated from those they loved. My black son whose ancestors were raped by their white masters. My black son whose ancestors escaped bondage for freedom in the North, and who were recaptured by slave hunters. My black son whose ancestors labored as sharecroppers after they were told they were free. My black son whose ancestors were lynched on the town square surrounded by an audience of white spectators. My black son whose ancestors learned that separate was not equal, and that to stay alive it was best to look down when a white person walked by. My black son whose ancestors fought Jim Crow and marched for justice. My black son whose ancestors followed the Great Migration north into Ohio, seeking a better life, finding a different kind of discrimination and segregation in urban ghettos.

Lynching Jars

Soil collected from the sites of over 4,000 documented lynchings of black people in America, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, http://www.eji.org

My black son whose history I don’t know and can only imagine; who only knows (for now) that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his sisters and brothers marched for justice because there was a time when things weren’t fair. My black son who grasped for the first time while we were in Alabama that black people – his people – were once slaves like the Jews in Egypt. This is his entry into understanding slavery, because for three years in Jewish preschool he has learned the story of Moses and Pharaoh at Passover.

He runs to the next marker and I walk toward him, wondering about those who came before him. In the same way I did about my own ancestors as I walked into Birkenau. My story and his story – our cracked histories intersecting – different stories with a shared experience of violation, of murder, of genocide, of a history and people exterminated. But our stories are different in one critical way: The violation against his people didn’t stop when slavery ended. It didn’t stop when Jim Crow was outlawed. It didn’t stop with the Voting Rights Act. (Especially as that is being unraveled today.) It didn’t stop when schools were desegregated. (Especially as schools resegregate today.) It didn’t stop when a man with the same color skin as his became President of the United States of America. The violation against his people keeps taking different forms, and racial discrimination is alive and well. That cracks my already cracked heart into a million pieces. Because these are the stories of his heritage and the reality of his present that I have a responsibility to explain to him as he grows older.

And I’m not sure how to tell those stories in a way that instills hope.

Tomb of Unknown Slave w Noose

Civil Rights Memorial Park, Selma, AL

I am the white Jewish mother of a black Jewish son. My ancestral story, my ancestors, will become his only if he chooses them. But even if he does, he has another critical story. His own ancestral story is a different one than mine. His roots originate in a different part of the world, and his path winds through other places in ways I don’t think I can ever claim to completely understand.

I want to give my son heroes; for now he has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks. I want to give him ancestors, but I know so little about his roots that I can only put pieces together from a broader, painful story. I want to give him community, a sense of belonging to his own people – both black and Jewish.

I want to give him his own story, but I know it will be his to write, his to tell, and his to claim.

Kids at monument 2

Civil War Memorial, Montgomery, AL

it’s personal

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I have a black son.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

I have a black son who is too young still to know that society

fears him,

mistrusts him,

doubts him,

considers him a threat.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

For now my black son is just adorable, charming, beloved, everyone’s friend.

He trusts because he should,

because he is only three years old.

I have a black son and I look at him and wonder,

When will he change in the eyes of those around him?

When will he begin to look scary, criminal, less capable?

When will his teachers begin to overlook his talents?

When will he be punished for misbehaving, considered deviant, while his white friends are dismissed for “just acting like children sometimes do?”

When will I have to tell him that he shouldn’t wear the hood of his sweatshirt on his head?

When will someone cross the street for the first time for fear of him, their heart racing?

What will that do to my son’s heart?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

When we filled out the adoption paperwork we were extremely clear that the child who would join our family did not need to be white.

We knew that he probably wouldn’t be.

We imagined a black son.

We knew – abstractly – that we would be taking on a great responsibility as the white parents of a black child.

I’ve been asked by both black and white friends,

“What is your plan for preparing your black son for this world?”

What is my plan?

Nobody asked me what my plan was when my white daughter was born 12 years ago.

I didn’t have to have a plan beyond loving her and giving her the world.

But my black son?

I want nothing more than to love him and give him the world.

And I know how brutally that world can be taken from him – in an instant – because of his gorgeous brown skin.

How do I prepare him for that without taking the world – his promise – from him?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

His ancestors came to America on slave ships.

The racism that binds him – something he doesn’t yet know – is systemic and has not ceased for two and a half centuries.

I have a black son and I have a responsibility to teach him that.

How do I give him that knowledge, that understanding which is his right, without the promise that things will get better

for his people who are not “my own,” but to whom I am still accountable?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he is a lover.

When he was three days old I held his tiny body inside my shirt, brown skin to pinkish skin, his head against my heart.

I promised my black son that I would care for him and protect him until my final breath.

I promised him that I would teach him how to be a good man.

How to be a black man.

Can I teach him that as his white mama?

What does it mean to be a black man, now, today?

What will it mean for him when he turns 18?

Will he remain safe – will he remain alive – until then?

Will he get the long, full life that is his right,

His promise?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he likes to wrestle, to tackle, to do karate chops, to yell, “Hah-YAH!”

How will he be seen for that, how will he be judged, as he grows older and becomes “a threat?”

How will I teach him that, around people in positions of authority, he will need to be submissive, compliant?

And that even then his safety – his life – is still not guaranteed?

Still not protected?

Still considered by some to be less sacred than mine,

or his sister’s,

or his father’s?

Why should I have to teach him that?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

Those men, those boys, those women who have been killed for being black,

Whose names are a list we read and reread and speak and call out

to remember,

Those precious lives that matter,

They could be my son.

They are my son.

My son’s life matters.

 

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

inheritance of laughter

 

Bday Smile

I have her voice, exactly. Her laugh, too, is the same as mine. Hers hits me most deeply of all the voices I hear on the cassette tape I have unearthed from a box in the basement.

She’s laughing so much. She sounds so happy, so present, so engaged.

It is a recording of my mother interviewing my great grandmother – her mother-in-law’s mother – about her young life during the first half of the twentieth century. They are speaking French. My great grandmother’s voice is exquisite – exactly as I remember it from the years I knew her, maybe a little stronger than it was at the end of her life, when she was in her nineties. I think she is 85 in this tape, visiting us in California from France. Her sense of humor is contagious, she is witty and opinionated and she makes my mother, my father, and her daughter, my grandmother, laugh constantly. It’s been 27 years since she died and I can still feel the soft skin of her incredibly clean, porcelain white hands. I can still see the twinkle in her blue eyes that could no longer see the world outside of her memories.

I was 10 years old when this tape was recorded, and I am not there. But every time my mother speaks or laughs, it is as if I am. Her voice is mine. Her laughter too. She is younger in the tape than I am now, but we sound so much alike.

I am struck by the palatable joy in my mother’s voice, how amused she sounds by the stories my great grandmother shares, how curious and inquisitive she is. I am reminded that there was a time – before the storm that started a few years later – when we were all really happy. That’s what I remember when I go back that far in my memory – a feeling of ease together.

Side one of the tape ends and the tape player I had to borrow from a neighbor to listen to it clicks off. I open it, flip over the cassette and press play again. For a few minutes, they continue talking, and then the recording ends and there is silence, but the tape keeps playing.

Then a new voice: My own. I am 13 years old and I have decided to record myself reading the family history project I am writing for my 8th grade social studies class. I have no memory of this, but I am so glad I decided to record myself because the information I collected over 30 years ago about my family is priceless.

I stand next to the tape player on the kitchen counter with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. That’s me, young me. Funny little animated me. Already a lover of stories and words. I am so cute, so lovable. I think my daughter would like 13 year old me, too. It’s been a really long time since I’ve reconnected with my younger self in such an intimate way. It’s a little like rereading my old journals, but different because this is my voice.

I put in the next tape and it is 1997 and I am interviewing my grandmother. Her voice is strong, too, more raspy than her mother’s because she was a smoker for more than half of her life. Her memory is sharp and she clarifies some of the questions I have after listening to my great grandmother’s stories. I didn’t remember that I’d interviewed my grandmother, but again I am so thankful. Five years later she had a stroke and she could no longer tell me her stories. I felt like I had lost one of my closest friends; this grandmother who was not even 50 when I was born. So young and beautiful and so present in my life for so many years, in spite of the distance between California and Italy.

She’s been gone for seven years. Her sister, who was like my third grandmother, for three. Their mother for 27. My maternal grandmother for 30. But it’s not their absence that I feel in this moment. What hits me most deeply is their presence in my life, still. Like they’ve settled in somewhere deep inside me and they’re always there for me to connect to.

To hear their voices again just brings me back to them more suddenly.

 

 

the moment

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I was out last night when my children when to sleep. They had pizza and watched football with Daddy, jumped on the new trampoline we brought home yesterday. As I left for my book club, they were dancing in the living room. I came home a few hours later and went into each of their rooms to kiss them – as I do every night – before heading to bed myself. Each of them opened their eyes briefly when I came in, recognizing me in a peaceful haze of dreamy sleep, then closed them again and rolled over. They don’t usually do that;  they are usually so deeply asleep I can hold my face to the tops of their heads  and breathe in  their smells or kiss their warm necks without a single stir.

This is it, that future I imagined for myself when I was still a little girl. This is the place where I am surrounded by love, presented with purpose, in a house filled with noisy chaos. This is the family I couldn’t even have dreamed up, but which found me nonetheless.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

Before I left for book club last night, I stood at the table with my daughter and looked into her eyes – those hypnotic, deep, dark blue eyes embraced by the thickest, blackest eyelashes, those eyes that droop a bit at the ends, so kind and so sparkly and so intense at the same time. We stood facing each other and sang  John Legend’s All of Me to each other, spontaneous, unrehearsed, perfect. The entire song, from start to finish.

As I listened to her voice and mine, how they are similar and how they are unique, the way they go together, I noticed how powerfully my daughter sang. She sang each word with clarity. Confident, expressive. I thought about how she is ascending in her life, finding her voice, harnessing and embracing her power and her place in the world. I could hear my own voice singing with hers, also clear and loving, but a little more timid. Not because I am afraid to sing loudly, but because that is not what I was there to do in that moment. As I sang with my daughter I allowed myself to be her reflection, so that she could see how brightly her light shines. It is not my time to overshadow her, it is my time to raise her up, to help her shine, to support her growth into the amazing woman I already have glimpses of.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

****

It takes daily acceptance to age gracefully, without resistance. I have not mastered this – let’s just say it’s where my ship is pointed, my intention. Lately I’ve been unable to look in the mirror without noticing the way my eyes are changing. They’re still big and wide and dark, my eyelashes still long (though not as thick as they were when I was my daughter’s age). But they are more sunken than they used to be. Tiny lines reveal themselves in the light and the shadowy thinning skin underneath them is persistent, highlighting the sunkenness. I know I am the only one noticing these details about myself; we tend to dissect ourselves with the greatest diligence and scrutiny. Yet I feel aware of the subtle yet persistent whisper that reminds me, You are aging.

My husband reminds me that I am younger in this moment than I will ever be again. Maybe so, but I don’t feel (or look) young anymore. And it’s kind of caught me off-guard.

My children are young. Everything is open to them, everything is possibility. Their skin is unblemished, their foundation solid. Their eyes are wide and aware. They are assertive and fierce. Everything is a question, everything is desire. There is so much that they need, and they trust completely that it will all be provided. By me, by Mommy. By Daddy.

I had the realization recently that one day my children won’t need me in the way they do now. One day they won’t need to talk to me every day, to ask me a million questions. One day they will remember to wash their hair and clip their nails and do their laundry all on their own. One day they won’t need my hugs and kisses to begin their days. One day they will find their own answers.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

****

My father is a very handsome man. He was a handsome boy, a handsome young man, a handsome middle-aged man, and now he is a handsome older man. The older he gets, the more he resembles his father, whom I only knew as an old man. My father grayed late, but now his hair is almost completely white. His skin is thinner, more spotted. His body, affected by Parkinson’s, more unreliable. His hands still feel the same as those younger hands that held my tiny little girl hands. His own eyes are more sunken. But those eyes… They are the same eyes. Dark and deep and alert, reflective, loving. When I look at his childhood photos I see the same eyes. When I stumbled onto the black and white studio portrait from his twenties where he is dressed in a black suit, holding a cigarette like a classic movie star, I see the same eyes. When I close my eyes and find myself at my desk in my bedroom reviewing multiplication tables with my young father, I see the same eyes.

I see them now, within his older, more hazy, more sunken eyes that are somehow the same and different together. Just like my own familiar yet different eyes.

I think of the fragility of an aging parent, how I connect to this and also to my own aging. How one amplifies the other. I think of the contrast between my children and my father, and the place on the spectrum – somewhere in the middle – where I find myself.

This is it. This is the moment. The moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

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.

****

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.

****

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.

****

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.

****

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.

****

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.

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.

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.