How to See Miracles

My grandmother has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.

How to Have a Good Day (or “Believe Me, Mom! I’m Sick!”)

It’s the kind of morning where you are not sure which way the day is going to go.

Either your child, who stayed home sick-ish from school yesterday (sore throat and headache, nothing verifiable to the outside eye) will be ready to go back to school and you – who work at home and enjoy all the flexibility and distractions and opportunities for kids to stay home from school that working from home provides – will have the house to yourself: to think, to write, to work, to procrastinate with coffee and newspaper in peace, or whatever it is you do.

It could be that kind of day.

Or, it could be a day where your child wakes up, appearing for all the world to be rested and rejuvenated after a day off; where he eats his cereal and readies himself for the school day without complaint or debate, perhaps with an attitude of “this is my lot, may as well face it; there’s nothing I can say that would change her mind to let me stay home so I will bear this cross and go to school” – at which moment his brother (coughing and nose-blowing and feverish) emerges from the guestroom (where he has slept last night because his own brand new, eco-conscious, expensive mattress is “not comfortable”) in T-shirt and underwear disheveled and clearly not going to school; and upon seeing him the child says with eyes wide: “HE’S still here???”

And you know, deep inside, which kind of day it is going to be, even before he changes his countenance, slouches his posture, and says: “I’m not feeling well.”

But you still hope! Because by this point he is dressed – shoes on – and you have agreed to drive him in the car to school. You still believe that his healthy happy core might carry the day – until you hear his commentary on the quick trip to school: “I’ll be home in an hour; see ya’ soon, Mom,” and “no one ever believes me when I say I’m sick” (guilty) and “remember when I had pneumonia and no one thought I was sick” (no); and he continues this commentary out of the car up to the threshold of school, close enough for us to say hello to the PE coach; and you think about getting a call from school in an hour, when you are in the middle of something, you think about the guilt you will feel (toward him, the teacher, the other kids at school for exposing an actually sick child to them), and you say to your child: “You want to come home?”

He looks at you, incredulous – this campaign worked? he was believed? you have a heart? – and he says “Yes,” still not sure if you meant it. And you do.  You come home. He gets back into his footed pajamas, retrieves his book out of his backpack, and climbs into your soft bed to read.

And you think, this day is going to be a good one.

Thanksgiving Traditions, Memories, and Spontaneous Reunions

Thanksgiving memories are enduring, even if some traditions are not.

One Thanksgiving tradition is as deeply loved as it was short lived. It was during my college years — it could even have been once and memory has morphed it into more. As I choose to remember it, the tradition was to gather my high school friends from our scattered collegiate cities, at my parents’ house the evening after Thanksgiving, to tell stories and laugh and dance and eat leftovers until our stomachs ached. Those friendships felt more burnished and eternal than the new friends I was still making (some of whom time has transformed into friends of the eternal variety).

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Circa 1987

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Dancing ’round the fountain.

My youngest son believes his elementary school besties will always be his gang. Maybe so.

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But if I look at my history, it is our older son who is arriving at an age when friendships might last. Next year he will begin high school, the very same high school where these friendships of mine were forged. This passage makes me think about these friends of mine who mattered more than anything in the world, a long time ago. And it makes me grateful for those I still count as my closest friends.

Every year as Thanksgiving approaches, these memories surface, and I contemplate sending out a call to reunite over pie tins, forks in hand. But every year the date comes and it goes.

Maybe it is right to leave good memories in their velvet cushioned boxes, precious treasures to admire from time to time. Or maybe it is wrong. Maybe it is time to send out the call — “PIE and DANCING, people!” — to see if spontaneity and nostalgia can overcome grown-up schedules and responsibilities to work their wonders. To reconnect with people I haven’t seen — some for decades, some for just days. To give my children a peek of the human treasures that await just beyond tomorrow’s thanks-filled sunset.

Thankful for: Kids Helping Other People’s Kids

A shout out for kids helping kids – good news in the midst of, you know, mostly blechy news.

Our public middle school’s Community Service Club is asking their fellow students to help Safe Place for Youth. (By the way, I am tooting the horn of other people’s kids. Mine are not in this club, though I must say they do community service. Sometimes under duress. But still.)

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Recall that all of SPY’s donated warm clothes and sleeping bags were destroyed in a fire.

Seeing these boxes bedecked with earnest handwritten pleas for donations was a welcome lift after the Parent Board meeting I had just left, which included the following snazzy agenda items:

  • Evacuation procedures in case of bomb threats!
  • Today’s “Shelter in Place Drill” (nee “Lockdown”) in case of active shooters!
  • Results from recent school fundraiser and pleas for several more fundraisers! (Because to be an excellent public school requires thousands of dollars more than they are allotted – for computers, science equipment, functioning sinks…you know, the “extras.”)
  • Gentle reminders about holiday gifts for teachers, because a little gift means a lot (see bullet point above re public school funding).

So the lovely part about this meeting was this news: Our heroic (yes, heroic; no snark or sarcasm should be read into this adjective) school administrators and counseling staff had identified two homeless families in our school. (That’s not the lovely part). The administrators had reached out to other school parents, and through the efforts, donations, and advocacy of many people, those families are now in temporary housing on their way to permanent housing, and have received donations of gift cards for supermarkets and restaurants so they can eat.

But wait, there’s more! Our counseling staff gives food gift cards to 25 additional families who, though housed, would go hungry without them. It’s especially crucial this week: with no school next week, those children miss their regular breakfast and lunch. (I’m cranky without breakfast for a day.)

Admittedly, with nearly 14,000 students in LAUSD homeless (no wonder LAUSD has its own Homeless Education program), helping two homeless families get housing is a drop in the bucket. But for those two families it is a waterfall of blessings. For the Community Service Club kids, whose collection boxes express their dream of a world that is kind, abundant, plentiful and whole, there’s no better lesson than this: changing the world one person, one coat, one meal, one family at a time is as good a way as any to change the world.

As overwhelmed as I can get by the enormity of need — to the point of doing nothing, because where to begin? — I appreciate the reminder, kids.

“Other People’s Kids”

I don’t want to be preachy, but sometimes I can’t help it. And that is okay, my dear readers, because you are the choir, and you forgive me.

Today’s sermon: There is no such thing as “other people’s kids.”

If they are kids, and if they are in crisis, and if we fancy ourselves grown-ups (not that I always do), they are our kids. We take care of them.

There, that wasn’t so bad. Simple, short and sweet.

In that spirit, I received in my inbox today a plea from Safe Place for Youth, a shelter just for teens, located in Venice, CA. A recent fire at a storage unit destroyed all of the warm clothes that had been generously donated to Safe Place for Youth to give to needy homeless teens. And even though we are in California (thank goodness) and not Minnesota (sorry Greg), the temps do dip: We broke out the hot chocolate last night; I’m wearing a sweater today. If this strikes a chord with you, click on the links above to help.

One last thing, if you’d like to get the word out about a place that needs help, please add your nominations in the comments here.

Laura

“How Do I Cherish Life More?” This Kid Wants to Know

Our fourth grader had a question: “How do I cherish life more? It goes by so fast. How do I slow it down?”

I don’t even know where to begin. Is this the mischief maker? The prankster who loves to break dance? He is all of the above. He is ten and he feels the speed that has taken him from baby to here.

This awareness isn’t new. He has longed for babyhood, toddlerhood, little-hood before. He has suffered through the realization of his own mortality. He gets that all this, that he himself, will not last. Now he says things like “cherish.” I’m so out of my league.

His father’s response: “Do me a favor. Just consider, a little bit, the idea of becoming a rabbi some day.”

And then, “Appreciate what blessings you have in your life, as often as possible.”

Yes to both from me.

And also, now that I’ve had time to consider, I would add:  Taste a strawberry verrry slowly. Look in my eyes for five seconds once a day. Stand in a patch of sunlight, close your eyes, and take a breath and feel it heat your skin.

I don’t need a clock or calendar to tell me time is passing too quickly. My 13-year-old son has outgrown his shoes from September, and he trick-or-treats without parental supervision. My niece fills out college applications, and new strands of white hair pop up on my head. These markers are more than enough clock and calendar to tell me that I need to cherish life more, too.

I step outside. It is a beautiful fall day. The rain last week washed our sky and I can still smell what it left behind — a sprouting blade of grass, a walk in search of puddles, a whopper of a double rainbow, and desperate hope for much more to come.

“Have a Great Day at School! Don’t Get Killed, Honey!”

Am I a lazy parent because I sent my sons to school knowing there’s a decent chance they will be shot and killed, but all I can do is hope for the best?

Because resignation is the feeling I had this morning reading more about last week’s “child murders children story.”

Do school shootings now occupy the same class of “terrible, unpredictable, unavoidable” as car accidents – they happen, but there’s nothing to be done besides crossing one’s fingers and not dwelling on the negative “what ifs”?

I know there are actions to take. Groups to support in their tireless efforts. Women Against Gun Violence. The Brady Campaign. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. There are messages and memes to share on Facebook. But what does that amount to? The gun that the Washington state football-player-Homecoming-Prince boy brought to school was bought legally and registered to someone in the family. Distraught over a breakup, it seems he texted his friends to join him in the cafeteria and then vented his sorrow with bullets. We can imagine that if there were no gun at home, he’d have punched a hole in the wall, or even someone’s face, and lived with his sadness until things got better.

I join the groups and I share the buttons, but look: even legal guns wreak havoc! So is the solution to accept that this is the way things are, or to radically change the way things are…or to believe in slow change? Slow change doesn’t seem to be working.

Do you want to keep crossing your fingers every day that it’s not your kid who gets shot?

Do we end this tyranny of guns? Share your concrete suggestions. And please be civil to each other.

How to Procrastinate: Interview with Laura Diamond, on writing, mothering, philanthopy, and messing up.

If you’re like me, you go online with an idea in mind — like, “I’m going to buy tickets to Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s new musical at the Old Globe,” or “How am I going to get rid of these ants,” or “we really need bicycle lights,” but then you end up trolling around for an hour, reading about conflict-free minerals and liking your cousin’s funny one-liners on Facebook, and then it’s time to pick up your child from school and you still have ants in the kitchen, and are no closer to getting to the Old Globe, and you’re still riding in the dark.

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It’s almost dark!

If that’s you, you may as well add one more stop to that list: please do me the favor of checking out the interview Jessica Schaub did about Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood and me, and let her know you like it.

(Buy Deliver Me at Lulu.com or Amazon.com, or get the ebook here.)

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Then don’t forget to pick up the kids.

Thanks!

Laura

 

 

“Good Grief!” or How to Be a Friend (Grief Haven, Part 2)

I’m not trying to bum you out with all this grief business. But it’s life, right? And I didn’t quite finish what I wanted to share in the last post.

And that’s this: Sage advice for friends who want to help, but aren’t sure how.


I was a third of my way through the first draft of Shelter Us when I discovered/decided that protagonist Sarah Shaw, a mother of two boys, had had an infant who died. Up until then, she was just a woman struggling with an unnamed loneliness.

I decided to make Sarah­­ virtually friendless. (Okay, I admit that part of this decision was connected to the fact that this first-time novelist wanted to juggle as few characters as possible. This may also explain why Sarah and her husband are only children, with one living parent each).

But a weightier part of the choice to make her friendless was my intuition that a mother who had lost an infant would lose friends, too. It was too easy to see living examples of this situation. I could look at myself to understand a person who, in the presence of great loss, did not know what to do or say, who shied away from facing another person’s pain directly.

While doing me the enormous favor of reading my manuscript, GriefHaven founder Susan Whitmore confirmed this phenomenon. When, in the story, a neighbor withdraws from Sarah, Susan wrote in the margins, “Sadly, this is so common. We lose friends – they think ‘it’ is contagious or it makes ‘them’ too sad to be around us. Another huge issue of anger and loss we deal with. It is very sad.”

Susan made sure that GriefHaven would not only offer resources to grieving parents, but to the friends wanting to support them (as well as these resources for children.).

In How to support grieving parents, Susan guides, “What you can do is this:

Just “be” with the parent when they are grieving. Share your own feelings about the child’s death, such as, “My heart aches for you. I wish there were something I could do.” or “I care so much,” or “I miss Joey too. I remember him running down the street with his friends,” or “She will never be forgotten.” Those types of comments are real and come from your heart.

Also, just listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Also, cry with the parent. You don’t need to be stoic. Your tears will not upset the parent. Quite to the contrary, your tears show them that they are not alone. We often hear that crying with someone is healing for the parents and siblings. This also applies to grandparents and other family members.

As part of trying to help parents and siblings, avoid trying to help them see some kind of “silver lining” in their lives, such as pointing out all of the “blessings” the parents still have. For instance, you would want to avoid saying things like, “You have other beautiful children” or “At least you had her for seven years” or “She’s in a better place” or even “You need to be strong.” What is true strength anyway? We would say that it takes real strength to feel the pain, deal with it on a daily basis, and let it be expressed in whatever way works. That is true strength.

Word.

One more shout-out on this topic, then I’m done. The brilliant, funny, wise Judy Silk wrote a beautiful piece after her husband Dan died. She said, in a nutshell, “Please talk about him. Say his name.” As much as death is a part of life, we don’t really know what to do or say, what will help. So I am grateful for the wisdom, hard won, of two extraordinary humans, whose lives and words can shine a light down the darkened path we may all walk down one day.

How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,

Laura