Baby Steps Towards a Book

Will I ever write a book?

I don’t know.

The question is never not with me, a double negative if ever there was one.

I live with it, or rather, it lives with me. It comes with me to the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth in the morning. It comes along to the grocery store, the gym, the synagogue, the bookstore. Oh, yes, especially the bookstore. It sleeps naked in my dreams and gives guided tours through houses I’m sure I’ve seen before. It gazes out the window at the late-day light.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I think: Maybe it will be easy. I imagine sitting down, starting, and finishing a completed draft in a matter of days. It’s an extreme vision, perhaps. You could say it’s unlikely, that’s not how it works. And you’d probably be right. But I’m not here to talk about what’s likely or sound. I’m here to tell you about the things that move across the sky inside my mind, like so many clouds.

Sometimes, I think: I can’t. I have ruined myself by writing so many small pieces. I don’t know how to sustain a longer narrative. What if I simply don’t have what it takes?

I hear these thoughts and questions and recognize their genus and species: Fear.

It’s always an option to hang out there, you know. You can stay in fear, where it’s safe, where you get to hem and haw and doubt your abilities and worry about how it will go.

What is the fear, really? What is the worst thing that will happen if you sit down and really begin? That you won’t keep going, thus setting yourself up for disappointment and failure? That you will keep going and it will be hard? It will be hard.

But not harder than this place of waiting and wondering.

I often tell clients, you don’t decide to run a marathon and then win a marathon the next day. In fact, it will be many months, years even, of slow and steady training. Maybe you’ll decide it doesn’t actually matter to you to complete a marathon, and that it is ok to be a person who enjoys walking. Maybe you will learn how to sink into the pleasure of being alive without having to be more than you already are.

Or maybe you will say, no, damnit. I want this. And then you will have to build up to it. You will start small. You will probably seek out support and resources and some way of staying accountable. You might consult with some folks who’ve gone the whole distance. What do they wish they had known before that they know now? You will have to sift through all of that outside input to figure out what works for you — your body, your life, your schedule, your work and family obligations.

Writing a book — writing anything, really — is not so different.

You will not sit down and write a Pulitzer-prize winning book in one sitting. But you also won’t write any book, without sitting down, on a regular basis, and plugging away.

I think about writing a memoir about my Jewish journey. I also am not convinced it’s time yet. I have just signed up for a 15-month adult b’nai mitzvah class at my synagogue. A group of us will meet with our rabbi for two hours one Sunday a month to learn and study and prepare for this rite of passage that traditionally occurs at age 13. But, as my son said this morning after services, “You didn’t even know you were Jewish yet.” This is true, and I wonder if it’s one of the stories I have to tell.

It has occurred to me to use the 15-month period as a way of tracking my learning and perhaps starting to fill in some of the “chapters” of my unfolding identity. The fear is that it is too big of a topic. There is a difference between an autobiography and memoir, and I do not want to write the former.

There’s a subtle difference — so subtle as to be energetic — between lying to oneself (i.e. I’m not ready) and truly tuning into what time it is in one’s own life. My intuition is that it’s not time for the book yet, and this demands that I check in to see if I’m letting fear drive the bus.

I’ll be sitting with this in the months to come.

It is also perfectly ok and honorable to be a writer who doesn’t write a book. A book is not the holy grail of the writing life. There are many ways to be a writer. I’d say a very large percentage of folks I work with and who participate in my groups and retreats struggle with claiming the title of “writer.” When I say, a writer is a person who writes, I mean it. Not every writer is a professional writer, a published writer, a money-making writer, a household name. In fact, the vast majority of us are none of the above.

The house is quiet, except for Chalupa’s snoring. I look over at the books on the shelf. I have self-published three books. And yet I still ask: Will I write a book? Clearly, there is a kind of book I have not written. There might be several. Time will tell.

What I want, more than anything, is to feel connected to myself and to others. To find form for what lives in me and yearns for a worldly shape. Stories, for me, and yes, books, are one of those recognizable shapes — a way of literally holding, and offering to others, one’s lived experience — and also of letting it go.

Baby steps might not seem very sexy, but they are the only way to begin, just as practice and commitment and a hefty dose of self-compassion are good ways to keep going once you do.

Don’t wait to believe it. Take some action and let the faith follow.

Petrozavodsk, 1990

Zina was Anya’s mother. When I came down with a cold, she fed me spoonfuls of honey at the small round table by the kitchen windows, morning light streaming in through the thin glass. It was early spring, but still cold in those northern parts, and when we went walking you could see the steam hovering over Lake Onega. The snow melted in April, and by the time I was feeling better, tiny crocuses were pushing their way through the cold ground and children were skipping in the courtyard.

Zina’s hair was a shock of that red-orange dye distinct to Russian women of a certain age. I didn’t  understand why she loved me like a second daughter; maybe because I was inquisitive whereas Anya was sullen.

My questions ran the gamut; I wanted to hear about her childhood, the dacha where her grandmother taught her to grow carrots and berries, the goat she nearly lost during a particularly bad spring flood when she twelve, how she’d met her husband (their families knew each other), and whether she ever dreamed of traveling beyond the city where she’d lived her whole life.

Zhanna, she’d say, I am content. Why should I want to go anywhere else when I have everything I need right here? She’d gesture around the small room, as if her teapot and slippers belonged to royalty. It made it hard to argue, even though as a young woman lusting for life experience, I knew my love of that provincial place hinged on the train that would take me away from it before long.

The forests nearby — miles and miles of birch trees straddling the Finnish border, dense with memory and darkness — and the low-hanging sky that seemed like an inverted bowl holding in the world below, all of this created a kind of vortex effect. At night, I’d lie in my small bed covered with so many blankets, the cold air seeping in from the crack Zina insisted was healthy for sleeping, and imagine I could hear the whispers of those who’d lived in that high-ceilinged room  before Anya’s family moved in. My dreams were a mish-mash of Russian and English and lines of poetry I couldn’t remember come morning, and I felt at once old and young and ageless as the weeks passed.

I also felt Jewish in ways that were beginning to grow more pronounced. The few times I brought this up, an unmistakably displeased expression crept over Zina’s face, and Anya’s lips turned downward even more than usual. Mother and daughter alike would glance in the direction of Anya’s father, who wouldn’t look up from his newspaper. Case closed; religion was not to be discussed.

But I couldn’t help myself. My love of Russia began to bang up against something else: The undeniable truth that Jews had left this place in droves, in search of the religious and cultural freedom of expression. Sure, some small communities had cropped up, particularly in the bigger cities, but here in the north, Jews were an anomaly — suspicious, strange, other.

More and more, I realized I was like those Russian Jews. My grandmother with her Yiddishisms and stories paired with my own lack of knowledge seemed too great of a parallel to ignore. I knew I was Jewish, but had not idea in practice what that meant. I didn’t know where to begin, but knew that begin I must. Zina and Anya indulged me, but the line was clear that this was not a welcome subject. Better to pour another cup of tea and talk about school or the weather. History, identity — why would you open those troublesome topics?

The next time I was there was four years later. Late July, the outer edge of the White Nights that held twilight suspended in a liminal state of waiting until dawn. We pulled the heavy shades at night to induce darkness, then woke to the sound of the kettle screaming in the kitchen. I was very sick; I spent days on or bending over the toilet, and Zina was as attentive as ever even as Anya receded further from sight. The moment had come and gone, the one where I belonged.

When I left, they waved at the train. I could see that Anya was tearful. Was it because she’d miss me, or because I was leaving and she wasn’t? From there, I’d travel to Prague, where the Jewish quarter and Terezín brought me ever closer to the inescapable truth of my heritage. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know of my family’s history; as my grandfather had said while he lay dying, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.”

Between Were and Are is Here and Now

I’m sitting here. Where is here? Here is “where” without the “w.” Here is my couch — a small, grey leather loveseat with a story behind it. Does every piece of furniture have a story? Probably yes. Here is the living room, in the company of Chalupa, who will be eight-months old tomorrow. She is chewing industriously on the metal sides of her platform bed, which we have permitted her to transform into a hammock of sorts. Our rational is that it keeps her busy and it’s better than eating the furniture, the furniture with stories.

Here is to the right of the kitchen, where homemade blueberry muffins are cooling, and to the left of my daughter’s room. Neither of my kids has school today. Now the puppy is chewing on her paws, which doesn’t seem good. But she’s entertaining herself and I’m not going to mess with it.

Outside, it’s raining, a cold, grey, fall rain. I am not hanging out in hopefulness today, not after what happened two years ago. But I am also not despairing. I am concerned about gerrymandering and voter suppression and intimidation. I am heartened by the people in my orbit who are doing their part. Eager, nervous. And just knowing that we have to get through this day and pray that the results are favorable and send an unequivocally clear message to those in power.

Any inspiration I have had to write has gone out of the window. It’s just not here. But I’m showing up anyway instead of falling into the binary trap of brilliant or bust.

Remember Adam? Well, yesterday, I got to spend an hour with him looking closely at some of his new poems. We drank bubble tea and ate macarons and talked about where poetry comes from and how it’s usually inconvenient in its timing. I read him this fabulous story from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, about the poet Ruth Stone running through the fields and sometimes catching a poem by its tail. He has never taken any official classes in writing poetry, but he has read a ton and it is a privilege to get to be part of his writing life, one of those things that makes me pinch myself with gratitude to make sure I’m really here.

I’m here. That’s the main phrase I’ve been coming back to for as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been blogging. It’s how I felt on Friday night at services, when the tears began rolling and wouldn’t stop, tears I’d been holding in without even meaning to. The familiar “I should become a rabbi” feeling surged through me. I went to the gender neutral bathroom to sob for a few minutes. I didn’t turn on the light. I just stood there against the wall in the dark and let it out.

Later, our rabbi said some profound words about facing the door. During a central prayer in the Friday evening Shabbat service, the congregation rises and faces the door. The idea is that Shabbat is the bride, and we are turning to see her entrance, to delight in her presence. The minute he said the words “open door,” the most chilling sensation tore through me. The open door to the sanctuary. The door through which we expect to see beauty, not bullets.

He also talked about the origins of leaving a door open during the Passover seder. Now, we know this tradition to be linked to the hoped-for arrival of the prophet Elijah. in the middle ages, non-Jews grew suspicious — more so than they already were — of what Jewish families were doing during Passover. In short, they accused them of things like drinking the blood of Christian babies. So the Jews, in what I imagine to be a mixture of frustration, anger, and defiance said, you’re wondering what we’re doing? Look, we will even fling open our doors. We have nothing to hide.

Now the open door to a sanctuary becomes so loaded, so symbolic, such a direct challenge to us: Can we keep our doors open, unguarded? Can we keep our hearts open, unguarded?

On this rainy election day afternoon, these questions make me want to curl up back under the covers. It’s too much. My son practices his new song on the piano before going to bake an apple pie with my mother. My daughter plays guitar behind her closed door. Now Chalupa has collapsed beneath the coffee table we won’t let her chew on. She’s snoring loudly.

Between the rain and her snoring and a fully belly, a great sleepiness comes over me and I wonder how I will possibly stay awake for the rest of the day or for the rest of my life. I flit over to the Dive Into Poetry group and read poems the way a French person might eat dessert — savoring each bite, marveling at the way the flavors and textures work together.

Then I take a breath.

The rain is so soothing. I am here, inside a warm space. I know the whereabouts of my people: My wife, my kids. I weep inside, knowing that this is not a given. Knowing that this is not the case for so many. As I wept on Friday night in the sanctuary, images of asylum seekers walking towards our border kept coming to me. We were refugees, too. We were exiled. We were ostracized. Are, are, are.

The space between ‘were and are collapses, as it did in the dream I had last night, an epic saga of racial profiling that culminated in my somehow knowing that the present had actually occurred many generations ago and that what I was seeing was, in fact, the past. We are the ancestors.

Next May, I am going to Israel for the first time, with my parents and my daughter. We will spend a week there as tourists. I keep saying maybe I will write about my history of trips not taken to Israel. Of dreams where I landed at the airport and knew exactly where I was, even driving home on some long roads through what seemed like nowhere until suddenly a city came into view and I was here, I was home. My first trip-not-taken to Israel was, or would’ve been, in 1995, then 1996, then 2001. I may still, write the story, that is.

But not today.

Today, only this. Rain. Snoring. Quiet. Waiting.

p.s. Now it’s a few hours later. I left the house! I voted! I talked to a writing client about books, and how the process is not the outcome. And now, as it begins to get dark out at 3:38pm, I follow Chupie’s lead and give myself to a wee little rest.

Ancestral Memory, Present Day Sorrow

Monday morning. Disconnect. Preoccupied. Mind drifts to ancestral memory.

We are all crowded into one house, three generations, no electricity, outside the house is menace, violence, uncertainty. None of the systems we’ve grown accustomed to are in place; it is a matter of connections or luck if you have medical assistance, or access to butter, people with root cellars. Will we die like this? The question hangs in the air. The young tolerate the old and the old shake their heads, full of despair that it has come to this. We argue but mostly sit, trying to be kind to each other, trying not to indulge the fear that keeps us awake most of the hours. There is very little crying. Crying is dehydrating and exhausting and accomplishes nothing.

We accommodate others as we can, those who already lost more than this, lost everything but their lives. I close my eyes. I am in a room. It’s cold. We don’t complain. We are together, unlike so many families. The stores we used to shop at, the streets we used to drive and walk, the schools and sanctuaries where we once learned and gathered and prayed and sang and celebrated and mourned, gutted. We are gutted but here. Hope is a flicker that there is an “after.” Most of us will not see the after. This is not what we wanted for our children. We don’t know what will happen, when they might come for us, too.

And then I come back, to the present moment, not the internal one but this three-dimensional one — a peaceful room, a dog chewing on her toy, the click-clack of fingers on the keyboard. Earlier, I listened to journalists on the radio, talking about things like an “ecosystem of hate” and the importance of context, the rise of white supremacy, which has in fact never fallen. Horrors never faced come back to haunt us. Jews as scapegoats and “infiltrators,” a trope going back thousands of years in dozens of cultures. Planting fear into the minds of people who want only to have something simple to believe in, because the world is not simple and meeting human need is demanding. Easier to eradicate, to attack, to blame, to turn away. The cost of turning away from suffering is so high.

I have this expectation that I should have a big cry any minute now, but it’s not coming. My wife gently suggests I let go of the expectation. Writing may be the only thing I have to lean into, to try to find some footing when there is such dissonance between building a life when the context is crumbling.

I will not give up. I will keep telling you this, and myself. I will keep caring for my own family while looking up and seeing the families torn apart by violence. I will keep showing up. But today, today what I am saying is: This is not easy. Scrambling to analyze and understand the bigger picture while maintaining an open heart, wanting to listen, to witness, to paint some vast picture where this will all fit together as if life were a puzzle — it doesn’t happen like that.

Yesterday, I asked the rabbi: Did the older kids (6th and 7th grade) want to talk? He said many of them mentioned feeling depressed by the state of the world. And what he told them was something about how that is why we have this tradition to hold us, to help us when the world is depressing.

This is far from the first wave of horrors humanity has faced. Once again, the task is in how we meet it, how we keep meeting each other. That’s all I have to return to on a morning when so much feels impossible to tackle. I will not offer false optimism, nor will I allow myself to disappear.

Grief Needs a Minute

Print: Erica Schultz Yakovetz

Today we saw lives taken and destroyed. Today we saw once again that anyone can walk into holy space and destroy life.

I keep thinking of the baby, whose bris (ritual circumcision) was this morning. How will this day shape his becoming?

I keep thinking of sitting in Shabbat morning services, the comfort of song and silent prayer, or looking around and meeting the eyes of those I know by name and those only whose faces I recognize, the way the light enters through the large stained glass windows of our sanctuary.

I keep thinking of the elderly people and the children and the out-of-town guests, all there to celebrate and welcome a new member of the Jewish people into his community.

I keep thinking of Charlottesville and Charleston, Ferguson and Parkland and Pulse, every black church, every public school, every grocery store, every synagogue, every planned parenthood building, every mosque, every locker room and house of learning, health care, and everyday life where it has not been safe to be a person of color, where it has not been safe to be a Jew, where it has not been safe to be a student, where it has not been safe to be a woman, where it has not been safe to be transgender, where it has not been safe to be gay, where is has not been safe, where it is not safe.

“Kill all the Jews,” the shooter yelled as he entered the building and opened fire. I am devastated for the families in that synagogue this morning, whose space will be forever a site of horror.

Just a few synonyms for Jew:


This is code

The dog whistling will not decrease. The truth-twisting and gaslighting are so staggering, it’s difficult to know where to even begin. And my words here are raw and unformed, because honestly, grief needs a minute to sink in.

They will stop at nothing, and that’s not alarmist. That’s reality.

I climbed into bed just after noon. Mani had gone out for a bit and Aviva was spending some time with my mom and Pearl’s at his dad’s. It had been a nice, quiet, rainy morning before this news; I finished reading Roxane Gay’s “Hunger,” which had been my only goal for the day. That was before Mani told me.

I took a nap. I drifted in a state of half-sleep, thinking: They want us to be scared. They want us to hide who we are. They want us to feel unsafe in our bodies, in our communities, in prayer and in protest, in our comings and goings.

I had the thought, we cannot succumb to our fear.

This afternoon, I don’t know what fighting looks like. All I know is that the midterm elections are in 10 days, and we are in a fight for our very souls. All I know is that I am with you and I am for you.

עושה שלום במרומיו
הוא יעשה שלום עלינו
ועל כל ישראל
ואמרו, ואמרו אמן

Oseh shalom bimromav
hu yaaseh shalom aleinu
v’al kol Yisrael
v’al kol yoshvei teiveil,
v’imru Amen

May the One who makes peace in the high heavens
make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth. Amen.