Afterlife, Ashes…and a Kickline for Al Diamond

Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.

If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.

Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?

But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.

In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.

And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.

Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”

Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”

“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.

“Al Diamond.”

“This one’s for Al,” she said.

The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.

I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.

Resolution # 2: Find your heart’s calling, resist “prestige”

Yesterday morning I looked out on a winter’s day in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. My eyes absorbed the leaves, wet and drained of autumn pigment, clinging to skinny dark branches, refusing to fall. It was the kind of day that used to bring the lyrics of “California Dreamin’” to my lips when I was a freshman at Penn, far from my native habitat of Pacific Ocean sunsets. Yes, all the leaves are brown! Yes, the sky is gray! It’s all true! At eighteen years old, my future was unlimited. Every path was open.

Today, many significant reunions later, I’m “safe and warm in L.A.,” back to work, writing and lawyering and mom-ing.

And…checking e-mail, which sends me to Facebook, which leads me to a post by Maria PopovaHow to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love. Uh-oh.

It puts me in the same frame of mind as the couplet closing “The Summer Day” by poet Mary Oliver“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It taunts me. Such pressure! Am I living up to it?

As though he is in cahoots, my ten-year-old son (who has lamented that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up) asks me, “Mom, do you love your job?” I consider, and answer: “I love writing…I like being a lawyer.” I tell myself that’s pretty good.

Do you know what you are called to do, are you are doing it?

Do you feel that you are glimpsing it, standing at the edge of the cliff and sensing that what you seek is out there, if only you had the courage to leap?

Are you close enough, happy enough, and don’t need to rock the boat?

I am not a leaper; I am a baby stepper. I cringe my way into the ocean and have inched my way for years into the writer’s life, combining it with the lawyer’s (if it’s good enough for Scott Turow, etc…). But one particular wisdom in Popova’s article is for all of us, leapers and baby-steppers alike: Let go of the false prize of prestige.

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

….

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

Prestige lurks and tempts: it is the esteemed career path, without the passion; the appointment to a high-falutin’ committee, without the interest. If the passion is not there, resist! Enlist the help of friends, if necessary. (I once asked my sister to shoot me if I applied to be a Law Review Editor. I knew I’d hate it, but I knew I was susceptible to its golden bauble, resume value.) I resisted on my own. No shots were fired.

What a way to enter the new year. Seek more of what moves you. Move closer to the joyful sound, the bracing splash, of your heart’s calling. Even if you have to inch your way toward it.

New Year’s Resolutions: Stress Less, Laugh More

It’s hard to get out of ruts in thinking and behaviors. With New Year’s approaching, I’m preparing for a big resolution to do just that. I share it with you in the hopes that you’ll help me stick to it, because lordy lord lord I am going to need a LOT of help with this:

I have wasted so much energy (we’re talking powering-every-household-in-California-for-a-year energy) stressing about the amount of time my kids spend playing video games (not violent ones, mind you—just innocent and fun sports games, for cryin’ out loud). My motivation is pure; I think they’ll benefit from varying things up a bit, getting a bit of Vitamin D. Using the lonely trampoline. Nonetheless, my obsession is a complete waste of time and has caused unnecessary anguish in our home.

Hold that thought, and pair it with this: Yesterday I mentioned to a visiting friend that our boys still like to read with us at night before going to sleep.

She stopped me, went wide-eyed and repeated back: Your boys. Like to read. With their parents.

I smacked my forehead (again): Duh!

Why do I not instead expend energy dwelling on that sweet fact? Or a million other sweet facts about my boys?

And why does it take other people to point out what’s right in front of me?

My older son is the person who most consistently points out my failings, and 99% of the time he is on the money, so I appreciate his constructive criticism. Ironically, it’s the things I do trying to be a good mother that mostly mess up. Irony sucks.

My friend, psychologist Lana Benedek, recently offered parents at the elementary school a Mindful Parenting lesson. Here’s some of it, and what I will endeavor to commit to my soul’s memory for my New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Honor your child’s sovereignty, accept his or her unique abilities and needs.

Let go of what I wish they would do or be and see that they are so perfect as who they are.

  1. Let go of perfectionist standards in parenting, and accept that even with the best intentions mistakes will happen.

And how.

My kids are funny, compassionate, loving, thoughtful, inquisitive, silly, smart and above all else, entirely themselves. They are more than anyone could wish for. And I don’t need any help at all remembering that.

Happy new year to all.

Laura

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).

IMG_6424[1]

Circa 1987

IMG_6426[1]

Dancing ’round the fountain.

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

uploaded June 2013 229

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.)

IMG_6413[1]         IMG_6414[1]

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.