hope and a heart in tatters

HOPE

Do not be daunted by

the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work,

but neither are you free to abandon it.

~ The Talmud

My husband came home from leading Shabbat services yesterday, walking into our home more quietly than usual. His voice barely more than a whisper, he called me into our bedroom to tell me something out of earshot of our children. I thought he was going to tell me that his mother had died, since he was flying out that afternoon to see her.

“There was a massacre in a synagogue in Pittsburgh this morning,” he told me. I looked in his eyes and wrapped my arms around him, and he began to sob as I held him. This strong, calm man who is a leader in our Jewish community; who has a way of maintaining equanimity through the most difficult times. My husband who is a head taller than me and at least one and a half times my weight let me do the only thing I could do in that moment – hold him. Cry with him.

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he began exchanging messages with his colleagues, conversations about security, about protecting our children at religious school the next day, about how we come together as a community in spite of, or perhaps to assuage, our fear. He was still sending these messages as I drove him to the airport, and when I dropped him off.

Then I went to run an errand before heading home to our children. Roaming stunned and aimless through the store, I found this little sign, one small but tenuous word: HOPE. This small thing was suddenly the most important thing in the store to me, and I held it as I continued on to get what I had come for. I brought it home and put it on the bookcase in my sunroom.

HOPE

This morning I drove our children to Sunday school at our congregation, the one my husband leads. I reminded my teenager to be aware of her surroundings and to let an adult know if she saw anything suspicious. I let my five-year-old remain unaware of how cruel people and the world can be, for a little while longer.

I parked my car behind one of the two police cars in the parking lot, the one with red and blue lights blinking. The parking lot was full. Parents and children streamed into our synagogue. Our emeritus rabbi and our cantor and a member of our board welcomed families as they arrived. We exchanged hugs.

THE PARKING LOT WAS FULL.

FAMILIES STREAMED IN.

Unintimidated, undaunted, even amid our collective fear and the weight of our sorrow.

Police officers patrolled the area, ensuring our safety. Everybody was talking about Pittsburgh. About antisemitism, about nationalism, about racism and discrimination and fear and fear and fear.

So much fear.

Of the other.

Of each other.

I am proud to be Jewish; I always have been. And today I am scared to even write this, to declare so publicly, in this space that anyone can read, that I am a Jew. Today in America, and in our world that feels like it is on a collision course with nationalism and authoritarianism, that is terrifying to declare.

But…

I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and so is my husband. My family on both sides were forced to leave their homes in Poland and in Egypt as refugees in the late 1940s. I work with and on behalf of today’s refugees; today’s immigrants and victims of violence who are here seeking refuge. I have a black son; his ancestors came to this land in chains.

We are Jewish.

This is personal.

And my silence only helps to let them win. But darkness can’t win, and neither can fear. That is not what my grandparents survived for.

So until my heart feels less in tatters and hope feels less tenuous, I’ll keep looking at the little sign on my bookshelf and I’ll remember this:

In my heart, LOVE WINS.

 

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all of time in this moment

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In the front row of the sanctuary, seated in the center so that my eye looks right at the Torah in its arc, I listen to the cantor singing the blessing over the wine. In a flash of my mind I am 18 years old again, at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA surrounded by new Jewish friends who know the entire full blessing so well that I can hear they have sung it every Friday of their lives. I only knew the beginning of the blessing then, and just the words, not the melody; it’s all we had recited in my home growing up, on those occasional Fridays when my mom decided to make chicken and rosemary potatoes for a special dinner and we lit the Shabbat candles. At that dinner during the beginning of college, I tried following along with the long prayer, mostly listening. Now, in the sanctuary of the synagogue in Atlanta where my husband is concluding a five-year tenure as one of its rabbis, preparing to move to a new congregation in a new city in a new state where he will lead a Jewish community, I easily sing along with the familiar words and melody.

All of time coalesces in this moment and I think about what it means to me to be Jewish, to have Judaism as my sanctuary. I remember the first day of freshman orientation, when I walked through a courtyard at UCLA towards the table marked with a sign that read, Jewish Student Union. I unexpectedly found my people that day, and in those years I connected with my Judaism on a new level. I think it was then that I knew without doubt I would marry a Jewish man and raise Jewish children one day.

I didn’t grow up a synagogue kid, but I went to Jewish summer camp for three years, and had come back from one of those summers to tell my parents I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. They hired a retired cantor and every Wednesday of 8th grade, he came to my house and taught me to read Hebrew, taught me all of the prayers in the Shabbat morning service, taught me my Torah portion, and helped me write my dvar Torah. Before our meetings he would sit in his car and smoke a pipe, and his breath smelled like cloves and cinnamon while we studied together. I had my small bat mitzvah at the library of the JCC, where there was a Torah I read from before 40 family members and friends, and we had a party in the garden of our home. My maternal grandmother had died just a few months before, and I felt her presence deeply on that day. My paternal grandmother had come from Italy, and prepared all of the food for the party.

I didn’t do much Jewishly after that, but at UCLA I connected again with this piece of myself that I had never questioned. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and Sephardic refugees who were forced out of Egypt in the 1950s for being Jewish. My Judaism growing up was in the fact that I was born in Jerusalem to parents who had met on a beach in Eilat. It was in the Sephardic and Ashkenazi food my grandmothers made when they came to stay with us from Italy and Israel. It was in stories I heard of relatives who had been rabbis, in my great uncle who prayed daily at the Sephardic Egyptian synagogue in Paris. It was in my cousin’s wedding in Tel Aviv, where I had been a bridesmaid when I was nine years old and danced with IDF soldiers who had come dressed in their fatigues to celebrate their friends. It was in my memory of putting a tiny piece of paper into the Western Wall in Jerusalem with my nine-year-old’s prayer that my great grandmother live forever. It was in the stories I heard of how grand life had been for Jews in Alexandria before Nasser came to power. Stories of my Polish grandmother sewing clothing out of potato sacks in Auschwitz to trade for eggs she could eat.

She would have been so proud of my husband, my maternal grandmother. Proud to know that I had married a man whose family came from the same part of Poland. Proud to see the humility and grace with which he holds the responsibility of being a rabbi, of leading a Jewish community.

All of time coalesces in this moment and I look up at the majestic sanctuary of this historic synagogue in Atlanta, this beautiful Southern city that has been our home for five treasured years. I feel gratitude and love for its people, its history, the way it has held us. I think of my daughter’s bat mitzvah in this sanctuary last year, of the four years of preschool here that have given my son the unquestioned conviction of his Jewishness. I think of the work I have been able to do to connect the Jewish community to the refugee families I worked with professionally. I think how much I am going to miss the Southern hospitality and genteel welcome we have received from everyone here, the sweet lilt in how words are spoken, wondering if Northern Virginia can still be considered the South.

Then, after the senior rabbi has spoken, after others from the community have spoken – all so graciously, so lovingly, so generously towards my husband and our family – my husband goes to the bimah to speak, from this pulpit that is now so familiar to him that it has been strange until this moment for him to sit with me in the front row. From my seat in the center of that front row, I watch him, I hear his words, and tears stream down my face, boundless love and pride burst from inside me.

In words spoken and unspoken, he says to me, We did it. This thing we set out to do together at the very beginning of our relationship 18 years ago, when I first told you I wanted to become a rabbi… We did it, and look how beautiful it is! All of time coalesces in this moment and I feel my grandmothers sitting on either side of me, agreeing with me as I reply silently: Yes we did, babe. Yes we did. And yes, it is beautiful. So beautiful.

After he spoke to the congregation, a standing ovation from our community showered him with the kind of love that fills every well of reserve our family is going to need as we take this next step forward in time.

The entire evening was a life-giving moment. My well is full.

I am going to miss this place, these people, so much. The 18 years leading to this moment have not all been easy. But they have all been so important. Our five years in Atlanta have been our best. I leave here deeply satisfied and grateful. I am so proud of my husband. I am proud of us. I am proud of our family. I can see how every single moment before this one is the moment that brought us here. To this precious place in time where we could pause Well full. Deep breath. Here we go… before our next adventure together.

 

unwanted attention

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I don’t go places alone at night. I haven’t for a few decades. I live in a quiet, safe neighborhood where women sometimes walk their dogs or go running alone at night. Even here it’s hard for me to understand how they don’t feel fear… aloneat night. The only time I feel safe and at ease out in the world at night is when I’m with my husband. Because I know he could – and would – beat the shit out of anyone who might try to hurt us, to hurt me. Because he is fearless in a way I could never be. I’d love to live in a world where women feel safe, but that isn’t the world I live in.

In my early twenties I was more fearless. Or maybe just more stupid. During a college semester in Paris, I rode the subway alone at night and then walked home the few blocks from my stop, through my quiet neighborhood, to my apartment. Once I made the mistake of barely smiling politely at the middle aged man in a business suit who opened the door for me that led out of my stop to the street. The middle aged man who… What? Misread my signals? The middle aged man who started following me home, a short distance behind me, and who didn’t stop following me until I spun around suddenly, looked him in the eye and yelled, “Go fuck yourself, asshole!” I yelled in French, unaware until that moment that I knew how to swear with such vulgarity in another language.

Unwanted attention.

That same semester, a decade before cell phones and internet, I would walk the block from my apartment to make a calling card call to the U.S. on a pay phone in a phone booth that was missing its door. I called at night, Paris time, when I knew I would reach my best friend between her classes in California. One night as I was telling her a story, I saw a man walking toward me. He stopped two feet away from the open booth where I stood and just stared at me – a quizzical look on his face – for what felt like an eternity. I told my friend that I might have to drop the phone and make a run for it, trying to summon up my courage while paralyzed with fear. The worst possible scenario, my greatest fear, flashing through my mind. I could almost swallow my racing heart in my throat. Then he turned around and walked away, and I ran home still trembling, imagining how things could have gone, how trapped and helpless I would have been. I comforted myself – barely – thinking that he must have not been 100% well in the head; as if a mentally fragile man could be any less terrifying than one with a plan to actually pursue me.

Unwanted attention.

When I was in first grade I was terrified of the moment each morning and afternoon when recess would end and we would have to line up to go back into class. That was when two little boys would rush me, one on either side, and kiss me on each cheek before running away laughing to the end of the line. Twice a day they would make me cry. I don’t remember how or when it stopped, or if my teacher took it seriously. I think my parents did.

Unwanted attention.

In my early thirties I spent a night comforting a friend as she took the morning after pill. She had been raped by a man she knew while another man laughed and helped to hold her down. I held her hand as her uterus contracted and she relived the experience, doubting and questioning herself at every turn, wondering if she had led them on, if she had asked for it. As if she could have changed the story if she’d done something, anything, different. “Please don’t blame yourself for what those fuckers did to you,” I said over and over to her.

Unwanted attention.

The summer I turned 20, I went to Club Med on vacation with my family. The hyper Brazilian activities director with the bad perm went by the name of Doodoo. Doodoo wouldn’t leave me alone, kept nagging me to come do water aerobics or some other activity with him and a bunch of middle aged women; I think he thought we were lonely. I kept asking him to just let me read in peace under my umbrella on the beach. One night at the bar, where I could get virgin (and sometimes real) pina coladas with the payment beads I kept around my wrist, Doodoo sat himself down next to me and told me that I should lose weight. Because then I would meet some feminine standard he’d decided he was the arbiter of. Because I should give a shit what he thought of my body. I told him to fuck off. In English.

Unwanted attention.

I spent a good part of high school and college carrying more weight than I felt comfortable with. It was hard to feel good in my body when I didn’t meet the standards of beauty ascribed to me by whom… Men? Society? The media? I craved attention that I didn’t get. I was every guy’s friend, but never anything more. In a crowd of skinny California blondes, nobody notices a chubby brunette.

What does that mean, to want the attention and not get it?

Then to start getting it,

but it’s not me who’s in charge of

when and

why and

from whom,

but someone else?

ports of call

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“Have you been to Brindisi?”

His eyes grow wide, he smiles, and there is recognition.

“Of course! Brindisi, Izmir, Haifa, Ashdod, Piraeus, everywhere!

“My father is from Egypt.”

“He is, really?”

“Yes. My family is Jewish, they were forced to leave Egypt in the late 1950s when the country was nationalized.”

His traveler’s eyes – which have seen every port of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf – remain wide.

“My grandmother and her second husband – he was in the shipping business – they moved from Alexandria to Venice. Then to Beirut, then to Haifa, and then to Brindisi. She lived 50 years in Brindisi and is buried there.”

“Brindisi is at the very bottom of Italy. I have been there many times.”

“Yes, on the edge of the heel of the boot. I visited her there.”

****

He was a ship’s captain for thirteen years. Large ships, ocean liners and cruise ships. He tells me about all the people he met from all over the world, fellow lovers and laborers of the sea. People of all religions but you kept religion and politics separate. He has seen what happens when you don’t.

He looks like a sailor. Hearty. Warm. Bright. Strong.

Again, that quality I continue to encounter in the refugee communities I work with: resilience.

He tells me that he swam across a river to escape his country, through one new country and into a third. His wife is still in that third country, where they met, waiting for the right visa to join him permanently.

He tells me that he has a green card but no passport. I understand what this means: He is stateless. Like my father and his family when they had to leave their Egyptian passports and nationality behind.

Refugees.

He can’t work on a ship again until he becomes a citizen.

“Perhaps in two years,” he says.

****

He asks me if I think he should try to apply for refugee status in another country, in Europe, where maybe they help refugees more. (Perhaps he is wondering if there is a place where maybe he can be more sure of what the future holds for refugees?)

“My friends in Germany, they get help paying for apartments, for medical care, for education.”

I suggest that he not do anything right now because everything is changing daily. I make sure he knows not to leave the U.S. right now, though I know he can’t without a passport to elsewhere.

We look at education programs because he wants to learn about something completely different in the meantime, something practical when you live far from the sea, far from your profession.

He tells me that if he were twenty years younger when he had come to the U.S., instead of in his late thirties, he thinks he would have more opportunities, more possibilities ahead of him.

Then he says, “I have one more question. Can you help me understand why the gas company takes so much money from me every month? I am just one person.”

We spend the rest of our appointment switching gas companies to cut his bill in half. I find a coupon code that gives him an extra $100 in account credit.

This makes him very happy, because an extra $50 a month is a lot, not just on principle.

the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?

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.

 

 

notes from the mothership

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I had the most amazing dream this morning between 6:32 and 7:00 a.m. I won’t describe the vivid convoluted details; I know how boring it is to listen to the play-by-play of another person’s dream. Plus, after a few minutes of trying to hold on to the feeling it left me and capture the details on paper, it started to fade even for me. But I was left with this:

A woman in her twenties or thirties or forties. From a country with an oppressive fundamentalist government, one where women’s voices are silenced through violence. She is rebellious. She is a threat to them and wanted by them and she lives in hiding, somewhere in another country where she can be more free, or sometimes underground in her own country. She is followed the world over by fans and friends via social media. She creates videos that celebrate women’s voices, men’s voices, freedom and sexuality. People support and celebrate her courage by sharing their own videos, speaking out about things that are taboo, things that bring up fear, things that keep us down. I get lost down the rabbit hole of her social media universe, read her words, watch her videos and those of others who are drawn to connect with her. I follow the connections all over the internet and the world, realizing that there are so many people out there who are listening and sharing what she has to say. Social media is so powerful it cannot be silenced by governments. Her statement is about rebellion, but not mindless rebellion without a cause – rebellion that is about celebration. Celebrating freedom of expression and existence and diversity and sexuality. Celebrating the power of connection and love.

****

Once the house is quiet after the kids and the husband are off to school and work, I sit at the computer with my tea and let myself noodle around on the mothership (my laptop) around the universe (the internet) for a while as I wake up. Sometimes it’s boring – you know those days when your email inbox and your Facebook feed are just REPETITIVE and DULL. Other days, like this morning, I stumble onto some gems, the kind that launch a thousand thoughts and stories of my own.

A courageous young woman telling her very real story about the ways she has been degraded, threatened, controlled, and violated by boys and by men. I read her story and remember the two boys in first grade who would run up and kiss my cheeks as I waited to go back to class from recess, how I dreaded ending up at the end of the line, their easy target, and how their unwanted kisses would make me cry. We all have those stories. I won’t rewrite her post with my own stories, but I could. I’m pretty sure every woman I know could.

I sit with my tea and I think about what it means to me to be a woman. I think about how complicated it can be, the mixed messages, the struggle to find your own voice and the freedom and courage to use it. I think about bodies and food and fear, about weight gained and weight lost, about being unsure about what I see sometimes in the mirror. I think about sexuality and fertility and motherhood, things that as a girl I imagined would be easy, things that are actually complicated and wondrous at the same time. I think about grief and pain and depression, how we sometimes hold the weight of the world in our beautiful cracked hearts. I think about illness and health and fear. Again the fear. I think about connection and friendship and love.

I think about my adolescent daughter and all I want her to know and believe and trust about how amazing she is. I think about what stories I will tell her that I have lived, what the lessons are that I want to teach her about what it means to be female. I want her to know how to exist proudly and safely in the world as a woman, how to hold on to that incredible wealth of confidence she has always had as a girl. I want her to always allow herself to shine her bright light – powerfully – in the world. I want her to trust herself. The mama bear in me wants to shout out to her from the rooftops: Don’t ever let anyone push you down!

Then I find the video below. Another courageous young woman says everything that needs to be said about our allowing ourselves to be BIG in a culture that wants us to keep ourselves small. (Take the three and a half minutes to listen to her poetry, it’s worth it.)

And I think about my young son and all I want to teach him about being a man, about how to engage with women in a world that tries to dismiss and control us. I think about what I want him to know about being black, things I cannot know first hand as his white mama. But things I can try to understand. I think about everything I still have to learn about raising a son, about raising a black son. I think about the forces conspiring against black men today, here, and I worry for him. I think about how, like my daughter, he is all possibility. I see the greatness within him. And I shout out: No! You will not push down my black son.

****

It’s as if the protagonist came out of my dream this morning, and she’s really really real, because she is actually every woman. Every human. She is me. She is my children. She is every human drawn to connect, to share stories, to speak out. Drawn to rebel and to celebrate. I swear she’s out there somewhere. So many versions of her.

meeting myself in time

Journey

(Artwork from the book, Journey, by Aaron Becker)

I just got back from a trip through time to my teenage years. I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my book club, and as I’ve read, my mind has jumped back to being on stage in my high school auditorium, performing in the play as Miss Maudie Atkinson my senior year. Even with my bit part, the experience made a significant imprint in my psyche – I remember feeling like I was a part of something. After four years in high school theater, I felt like this show was IT, the one with meaning, the one that everybody came to see (even the jocks), the one that moved people. I was telling my daughter about it a few weeks ago, trying to remember the names of some of my classmates who had also been in the play. This led me downstairs to one of the endless plastic bins in our basement – this one held my yearbooks and my high school and college diplomas. I brought my senior yearbook upstairs and it’s been floating around the house since. I can’t seem to get myself to bring it back downstairs.

“Look Mommy! You’re on the first page of the senior photos. You look so pretty Mommy!” my daughter said to me as she looked carefully through each portrait.

Really? I thought. That’s when I had already started gaining weight after my mom left. And my eyebrows are so bushy. I didn’t say this aloud, but it was the first thing that went through my mind when I saw myself again. I also noticed that I looked kind of sad. She said it several times over the next few weeks as she picked up the yearbook again: “You look so pretty, Mommy.” I know she meant it completely – she isn’t the type to say things she doesn’t mean.

“Take that in,” my husband said to me when he heard her say it the second time.

I sat with my yearbook over the next few days, reading the notes people had written inside its covers and pages. It’s been years, possibly decades, since I’ve reread them, and I tried to put myself in my almost-18 year old shoes to remember how they affected me then.

The words of my best friend, surprisingly unsentimental. But then again, we had only known each other for 8 years then. (That felt like centuries, 8 years, when we were not even 18.) Now all these years later, she has stood by my side and held my hand for 34 years. She knows me like only someone who has been consistently present for 34 years can know you.

Then this jumps out unexpectedly: A single message from a guy I remember knowing only barely, who nailed me probably most perfectly. I’m sure it made me uncomfortable to read at the time. Or maybe it made me feel seen. However it felt then – understanding my younger self as I do now, with the perspective of all the years that followed – he got it. The essence of his words was, You are such a giver, you care so much about others. I hope you will let them give back to you. I hope they will.

I kept reading and found this several times in the words others had written: Never lose your optimism and idealism. They are the most special thing about you. 

I sat at the dining room table with tears in my eyes. I felt as if I were sitting with almost-18 year old me, getting to know her again. Discovering how much she already was so completely the person she could only dream of becoming.

Already I was exactly who I am still. 

****

This past week I read a work of fiction written by someone who had known my father shortly after my parents divorced. They had known each other well for several years, and kept in touch in the years that followed. She had known our family during a difficult time of enormous transition, and she had known that same teenage me I had just become reacquainted with through my yearbook.

While her work was fiction, there were some familiar pieces in her story. And it took me back. Back to how it felt to be figuring out what it meant to be a family after one-fourth of our family had disappeared. Back to driving my little white VW Rabbit – anywhere that was away from home – to get some space from what felt heavy. Back to finding a home in theater, a place that gave me meaning, community, confidence. Back to eating Ben & Jerry’s at 11 o’clock at night watching reruns of Welcome Back Kotter.

But there was also this: The perspective of someone who had known not only my father, but also his daughters. She had had her own experience of me as a teenager, her own view of that younger me. Hers was another lens through which I could revisit myself, another impression of the person I had been. Just like the words of those kids in my yearbook. I was seeing me as they had seen me.

****

I felt warm towards her, that teenage me, but I didn’t feel sorry for her. Already then, she was mighty. Already then, she was finding resilience, she was finding joy and meaning amid loss and sorrow. Even then, she was unescapably hopeful. Even when she felt alone in her heart, she continued to care for those around her.

I think we can choose how we tell our stories. I have told mine in many different ways, but I don’t like the version of the abandoned daughter anymore. That one doesn’t serve me, it hasn’t for years. Neither does the one about the girl who never felt cool enough, the one who was always overly self-conscious and insecure. And the story about the girl who got fat from grief, and then overcame that anger and sadness and released the weight? That one doesn’t really speak to me anymore either. There is no victory in overcoming our pain – only the important experience of letting ourselves truly feel it, and the peace that comes out of that.

They have all been my stories, though. Even if I no longer tell them the same way, I have told them, and they remain a part of me. 

I used to feel regretful that I had wasted so much time in all those self-pitying places my soul has taken me. But I know now that this is where I needed to go. That entire sophomore year in college that I spent on the rooftop of my apartment building, feet soaking in the hot tub, writing furiously about my sorrows and my rage in a dozen journals? I had to go there too. Those journals – however depressing and endlessly circular – are also a part of my story.

What comforts me now, all these years later – here where I am surrounded by the love  of others, blessed by family and home and a life of great meaning that I dreamed into being – is knowing that she was there already, that much younger me, even when she thought she had barely begun being herself. I don’t know that we are here to become ourselves, so much as  our journey is about returning to our essence.

Maybe she is the one who traveled through time to see me. Maybe she doesn’t need me to go back in time to comfort her and tell her she will get there. Instead, perhaps she is the one with the message for me:

You are already there. You are already you. Your destination is inside you and you have been carrying it all this time.

on writing and authenticity

IMG_5134

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.

****

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. 

 

 

time keeps on…

Mix Tape

Cue the Steve Miller Band on a mix tape, followed by Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, and I am 17 again, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in my white 1980 VW Rabbit with the baby blue vinyl seats, windows down and arm out to catch the wind.

****

Sometimes I feel like I have to be a little crazy to be parenting a toddler at my age. I’m too old for this crosses my mind daily. Too old for tantrums in the grocery store. And yet… I have a different perspective about it all this time around. I can usually remain calmer through the tantrums. I know now that 99.9% of the time there is no need to fix them. My son keeps me young, even if at 43 I am not so young.

It all makes me hyper aware of age, of aging. I’m not always sure what to make of time, the strange way it moves. How it all seems to exist all at once, in a way. I am 43 and I have an 11 year old daughter and I can also remember vividly being 11. That was the year that nasty bully made up that name he insisted on calling me well into late high school. It was also the year I met my best friend. And it was the year I had my favorite teacher, the one who taught me that, If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I am 43 and my 71 year old father has Parkinson’s disease, and I can remember when he was 43 and the disease had just barely started to show up in his body but I still didn’t know. I am 43 and after dinner, when the kids are in bed, my husband and I talk about how we are saving for our retirement, what we want for our own future care. When I am my father’s age my daughter will be 39 and my son will be 30.

One night during my daughter’s first year of life, as I nursed her in the dark in the rocking chair, she placed her tiny hand on my arm and fell back asleep. As I looked down on her hand and my arm, a flash of future memory traveled through me like a wave. It was a split second vision but so vivid and true. In it, I was in a bed in a peaceful room and I was very old, in my nineties. She sat next to me, in a chair by the bed, and she, too, was older, in her sixties. Her hand was bigger, older, the skin around her veins thinner and more translucent, the veins themselves more pronounced, but it rested still on my arm. My daughter. At the foot of the bed there was another chair and in it sat a man. I could not see faces, but I knew these were my children.

I hope beyond hope that I make it to that moment. It has brought me comfort at times, knowing that I will live into my nineties accompanied by those I love.

****

I used to think of myself as an extremely nostalgic person. A song or a smell would set me off and I would find myself years in my past as if no time had gone by, deeply moved by the same emotions. I still time travel a lot but without longing for a moment or experience I can never get back. Any song by Journey and I am in middle school again instantly. I heard an NPR piece once about why this happens with the music from that time in our lives – that we are at our most cognitively impressionable during our adolescent years and so those end up being the songs we remain most connected to (and which can make us most nostalgic) as we age. I am 43 years old and happily married to the love of my life and Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is can still bring up a twinge of pubescent longing.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I understand nostalgia differently. I think more than anything, I have always been especially aware of the movement of time; even as a child I had a sense of myself moving forward in time into my future, an understanding that the current moment was fleeting. I paid attention to my parents – to their dynamic with each other, to their moods, to their needs. I still remember the last time I noticed my parents kissing, several years before their divorce. Maybe all 11 year olds are this aware? So much imprinting into my soul during those years. Stories forming.

I was one of those kids who really liked hanging out with grownups. I found them interesting, compelling. I loved going to movies with my mother – she introduced me to James Dean, took me to R-rated films I barely understood: Fanny and Alexander, Chariots of Fire, The Hotel New Hampshire, Hair. I remember Natassja Kinski dressed in a bear costume, some man savagely doing something to his wife from behind, Treat Williams opening his mouth for a sugar cube… I was a popular kid among the parent set, precocious, intelligent, a sponge for connection. When I got bored playing with a friend at her house, I would go into the kitchen and talk to her mother. Babysitting during middle school, I would put the kids to bed and do the dishes (yes, I did the dishes), serve myself some ice cream, and then walk around the house and observe how other families lived. I’d look at the wedding photos in their frames and imagine my own marriage, my own future family. I’d look in the medicine cabinet at pill boxes and condom boxes and diaphragm boxes. Once I stumbled onto a turquoise glass bong, though I didn’t quite understand what it was. It was pretty and it smelled musty.

It moves, time. I think in a way the nostalgia transforms to a longing to have some of that time back. How did I get to 43? What happened in the last 40 years since I started retaining my memories? Or at least, what do I have to show for myself from the past, say, 20 years? What would I do differently if I could go back in time and change some things, make different choices? I was speaking with a nurse friend who is in her fifties, telling her that if I were 20 years younger I would go to nursing school. Or social work school. Or even medical school. I would take all those science classes I avoided that I am now so curious about. My friend replied, You can still do it, you know.

My daughter asked me recently, What’s the one big thing you want to do in your life? Besides motherhood? Write a book. I want to write a book.

I feel the fire under my belly now. The deep need and desire to leave my imprint; a meaningful, lasting, loving mark on the world. Time is moving faster now that I am on this side of 40, now that I am in midlife. There is so much I want to do. Confidence and a belief in myself that I have finally deeply connected to after all this time. Trust in my 43 years of life experience and the wisdom I have to share, which comes from all I have lived, from the challenges and overcomings and life lessons and adventure.

****

In Montessori classrooms, children learn in groups of three grades at a time. The classroom more closely mirrors the real world, and older children help guide the younger children while learning how to mentor and lead. I don’t think we are meant to connect only with people in our age group. I love my friends who are older than me, who are examples of how I want to move forward in my own life. I love my friends who are younger, for they teach me too. So do my children.

I hope I can teach my children well. Teach them to age gracefully, to grow confidently into themselves, to not fear or dread the passage of time. I hope they will believe me when I tell them that the wisdom that comes with time is worth every wrinkle and stretch mark and crack in their souls. I know from my own elders that out of this wisdom can come ease and grace.

I’ve been writing my book in my soul for a long time. Gathering the pieces of life that have started to form a mosaic. As my best friend since fifth grade once said, Living my life for the story it will tell. For me, at 43, nostalgia has turned into something beautiful: a desire to tell my stories aloud, to write them down into something significant. Sharing stories gives my life meaning. That is the imprint I want to leave behind.