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

How a Book Can Help Us Talk About Feelings: The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm

My friend told me that in her daughter’s Social Studies class, the teacher has allowed the 15 year olds to choose their own discussion topic for the past few weeks. Without fail, they have chosen to talk about the Islamic State, and also without fail, each week a few of her classmates are in tears.

My first thought was that neither I nor my kids are well-read enough to sustain an intelligent discussion about the Islamic State (apart from “H&ly $h*% they’re scary!”). My second thought was, that is for the best. ISIS is a terrifying external threat, beyond my kids’ and my control, which can only make sensitive folks like us feel nuts.

I think I’m in luck: when I do try to begin a conversation about current events, it is quickly sidetracked to sports or Legos or “What’s for dinner?” But I know that doesn’t guarantee that they aren’t worrying about it. How do I ask my children if they are afraid of something, without inadvertently introducing a scary topic they may not have been worried about?

Enter a new book by LeVar Burton and Susan Schaefer Bernardo, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm.

The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, by LeVar Burton

A story within a story, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm introduces us to a mouse who is terrified by a terrible storm, and whose wise Papa reads her a book called…The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm.

The story is a point of entry for talking about feelings that can overwhelm. The illustrations and poetic story-telling express the roiling feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for. Its mission is to help parents and children deal with external fears and anxiety, without once using words like fear and anxiety.

I don’t have the littlest of children anymore, but we all have worries, no matter our age. I’m happy to have this book to read to my kids (and to myself), to introduce a conversation we may need to have now or years hence, with imagery and language that are as reassuring as anything I could want. It won’t stop the terrorists, or hurricanes, or crazy gunmen, but it can help us get a handle on how not to swallow up and internalize those worries.

 

News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I'm thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.

Lucky!!

 

I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.

Laura

How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)

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What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are still his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. Continue reading