For Allowing Us to Reach This Season

Photo: Dan Gold

Coffee. Perhaps this goes without saying, but it is always worth saying.

Chalupa, who has figured out how to sleep with awkward plastic cone head. Who ate breakfast from my cupped hands this morning. And is now snoring sweetly. (You know how much I love this pooch.)

“It takes a village.” And my layered relationship to this expression, my lived experience of it, and the profound gift of growing.

The conversation Mani and I had in the car yesterday, on our way to the vet in the afternoon. How there is no hidden meaning. Or how there may be — in that there is mystery — and also: Meaning is what we decide. We don’t have to seek or create it.

Fall. The 40-degree temperature swings. Back to school. Pearl woke up with a slight fever and a head cold. Tis the season.

Incremental change. How big decisions often come suddenly, but not out of nowhere. There is something sacred here for me — maybe it’s related to the meaning thing — about seeing this in myself and in my actual life. The subtle but profound impact of really learning how to listen.

Humility. Stands alone.

Growing up, I did not know about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I did not know about Shabbat or kashrut or the Shema. I did not know mitzvah from challah. I did not know Inquisition or Holocaust.

As a child, I took ASL at a school for the deaf in Buffalo. My signing partner was an elderly woman who’d lost her hearing.

I wanted to be able to speak without making a sound, like I did at the piano.

When I was 15, I spent a summer in Spain. I saw swastikas spray-painted on brick walls. I knew this was the land of my father, and the language came from an old place in me, one I didn’t have to work hard to find.

When I was 16, I went to Russia. I rode trains through dense birch forests, far north, near the Finnish border. I was never afraid of the men, though maybe I should have been. I opened my mouth to speak and surprised them. I knew this was the land of my mother, a place her grandparents fled.

Israel. I go there in dreams. I am home.

In Prague, the way the stones in the old Jewish cemetery toppled, falling over each other, felt like time itself.

This kitchen. I made pot after pot of white Carolina rice, hauled shipments of Ensure up from the porch, determined to keep her alive.

The Shehechiyanu. The blessings that says: “Thank you for allowing us to reach this season, this moment, this time.” We recite it to mark the first of something. That first may occur cyclically — like the first night of Hanukkah — or it may be a one-time thing, like the first time a child loses a tooth or the first time a certain group of people has gathered.

בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָתְנוּ וְקִיְּמָתְנוּ וְהִגִּיעָתְנוּ לַזְּמָן הַזֶּה
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

I learned these things by learning these things. I am not what you think but I am exactly who you believe me to be. It was not easy, discovering myself. It was 40 years of wandering. Despair and thirst and a hunger so deep it devoured me from the inside out.

But it was worth it. So very worth it. To arrive here. Here to this life. Here to this work. Here to this wife, these children, this community. Here to this moment in time, with its urgency, with its clear mandate to stand up and be counted and to know that every word, every silence, every encounter, every choice counts.

Prayer. How it has many forms. How it might be communal and it might be intensely solitary. How we all carry so many rungs, like old-growth trees.

I do not pledge allegiance to any flag. But I do bow my head before something I can only call God. Call this what you will or nothing at all. That’s why there are so many names, so many doorways, so many paths up this steep mountain.

And if you want, take my hand.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

A Complete Blank

Do you ever get stuck in an “I can’t write” jag, where every time you sit and try to start, you sputter and stall and think “I can’t write” and give up? That’s pretty much where I’ve been for a few days now.

What’s funny is that I actually wrote plenty in August — I wrote over on Patreon, my new playground (come join me!). I wrote on Mondays at 11:00am and on Wednesdays at 6:00pm, when 2-3 women came to my living room to write with me. I wrote lists of 11 things. I wrote two poems while I was walking in Gloucester, where Mani and I spent five blissful nights.

And yet, for some reason, coming here to write a blog post has felt nearly impossible. I think I’m just putting pressure on myself. I came back to Facebook a few days ago after taking a month away, and truly felt like I’d forgotten how to do social media. I said I’d write a post about what I did on my summer vacation, and I really do want to tell you about it.

But when I try to remember, when I stop to think, ok, what is it I did and what do I want to share, I’m drawing a complete blank. It already seems like a long time ago, like a dream that was super vivid and then vanishes the minute you wake up or start telling someone about it. It’s like it gets lost in translation.

Diving In

The first week of August consisted of a daunting amount of sleep. I thought maybe I would just sleep through the entire month. I took a few epic naps — we’re talking in the three-hour range — along with early nights and lazy mornings. I read a LOT, including an incredible memoir called Maid, by Stephanie Land, which I couldn’t put down and highly recommend you preorder.

The week after that, I had a surge of energy. I felt fantastic. So fantastic that I was actually… working more. I met with a few coaching clients — in person and on the phone and via zoom, in Amherst, northern California, and Prague. I had an idea for the next Dive Into Poetry, which will be in November, and emailed all past participants to submit poems I will use as prompts. Several folks responded and I felt really jazzed about trusting myself a few months ago, when I knew I needed a break from what had become a quarterly offering.

Sure enough, taking that time without a plan allowed new ideas to arise. I also got to connect with a wonderful teenage writer, whose poetry is conquering stigmas around mental illness and recovery. I marveled at the way work kept coming in, as if to prove that Facebook is not the one and only way to connect with people. This was a big YAY.

Mid-August, Pearl and I drove to visit Aviva between camp sessions. She’d spent three weeks on an epic road trip through the south — beginning in Asheville, then onto New Orleans, and ending up in Atlanta. In each city, they visited and learned about different urban farms, while camping in local state parks, making their own meals, and discussing Jewish perspectives on environmentalism. Needless to say, she had a life-changing experience. Before spending another three weeks at camp in New York state, there was a family visiting day.

We set out in the morning — turns out Pearl is an excellent DJ, who kept us in good music all the way across 84 West. About half hour before our arrival, I got a call from the camp nurse. It was possible, she said, that Aviva may have broken her toe. We would have to scoop her up and take her to urgent care for x-rays. Approximately $500 later that I am now wrangling about with insurance, she hobbled back to camp on crutches with a sprained big toe. Seeing her was so so good — and I could feel how grounded she was after her few weeks on the road.

Then, the third week came… and I got sick. It’s as if my body was saying: “Um, helllloooooo. We thought you were taking a break?” and knocked me back onto the couch. By then, I had filed all of the papers that had been stacking up for the past month or two, cleaned the car, and taken a huge stack of books to the bookstore to trade for credit.

What began as a tickle in my throat quickly became a full-blown head cold. Mani will tell you I am a big baby when I get sick, and she heard plenty about how miserable I was. I had to cancel Week 6 of the Wednesday living room group, and we packed for our trip despite how crappy I was feeling.  Five nights near the ocean could only do a body good, right?

Right. Right, right, and right some more. Aaaaaaah.

Ocean Medicine

If you ever don’t know what you need, find a way to get to salt water.

The tiny cottage we’d found on AirBnB turned out to be pretty much perfect for the two of us. You could see the water from the little loft bedroom, with a small cove less than 1,000 steps from the sweet outdoor patio with its Buddha statue and fountain. Sitting there the first morning, drinking our coffee, I felt I’d landed in a slice of summer heaven.

Each morning, I set out on a walk and explored side streets, community gardens, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and million-dollar house-porn views. In the afternoons, we checked out a few different beaches, drove around, went to thrift stores and found some adorable items for cheap, and saw a movie at the world’s funkiest movie theater, where viewers have their pick of couches and armchairs.

We finally saw the Mr. Rogers movie and loved it. We also found our dream neighborhood in Rockport and schemed about how we will someday live near the West Coast ocean in the winter and perhaps the East Coast ocean in the summer. Girl’s gotta dream, right? I got excited about bringing the kids back to the coast for a day trip, before the High Holidays and while it’s still warm enough to jump in the water.

Chalupa stayed at her breeder’s house for the duration of our trip. We were admittedly a bit anxious about leaving her, even though we knew she’d be in bulldog-loving hands. Picking her up was *very* exciting for us all, so exciting that I got back on the Mass Pike heading west instead of east and added a full hour to our return trip.

Clusterfucks and Paddleboards

Getting home from Gloucester was a little bit of a crash course, in that there were some last-minute school-related questions to sort out for Aviva. Which is putting it mildly; truth is it felt like a complete clusterfuck on confusion and a tumble of disappointment after such a grounding summer. However, I will say this: These moments always, always come, in some form or another. And how we meet them matters.

After a few days of chaos and uncertainty, things resolved in a way that I am quite sure is for the best, and the best part was seeing my girl dig deep for her own resilience– which was right there ready.

We attended her community college orientation. She even got her official student ID, her hair in two adorable tiny vertical sprigs (it’s growing out from when she shaved it all off last spring).

The next afternoon, Pearl and I borrowed a car and headed north to our second consecutive year of family camp. He was cranky about going at first, but by bedtime in our little cabin had turned a corner and settled in. It was great to see him with the friend he’d stayed in touch with via email all of last year, reconnect with some of the people we met last summer, and meet new families. I even had my Karaoke debut!

Paddleboarding was a high point, especially the moment when Pearl and I traded boards in the lake and I lost my balance. Nothing like losing one’s balance to get a good, old-fashioned dose of humility.

The leaves were already beginning to change in New Hampshire as we drove home on the last Monday of the month. Chalupa was *very* glad to see us; finally everyone under one roof! I think Mani was happy we were back, too, in part because the doggles had a tummy bug the whole time we were gone and she’d been “on” with her round-the-clock.

School-supply shopping the next day rendered a “holy shit” moment at the total we spent, which I chalked it up to new beginnings. Mani, meanwhile, is devouring Your Money or Your Life, and this month we are kicking off some hard-core budgeting and savings goals.

Pearl not only survived his first day of middle school, but came home in a great mood. I met one of the new principals, a man of color in a snappy suit who greeted every student and parent with a handshake by the front door. We rode bikes three mornings in a row, and I found myself feeling happy, grateful, and optimistic as I cycled home without him each day.

Books & Writing

Oh! I meant to tell you: I am reading “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” a collection of essays by Alexander Chee. I posted about it on Instagram and had a total fangirl moment when he left a comment saying, “I hope you love it.” And I do. I fucking love it. The writing is brilliant and if you write and/or appreciate good writing and true stories, run out and get this book.

I also started “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)” by Kate Bowler. I wanted to love this book. I thought we had a good shot at bonding. But I put it down about halfway through. It’s clean and accessible, and I haven’t fully put my finger on why it didn’t hook me. It’s almost too highly edited; something is missing for me in terms of depth and detail and voice. Such a mystery, really, why some writing speaks to us and other writing doesn’t — and it’s not necessarily a reflection of the writing, more the alchemy or lack thereof between book and reader.

This month, you can write 11 things for 11 consecutive days with me, as we listen for the sounds of real life happening. You can also come look for the words for two weeks, with the help of 10 new prompts and a small group of brave souls, in Word Search, a new 2-week group. I feel a bit rusty when it comes to everything internet- and work-related, but I know I will find my way back to the candy house with your help.

Juicy Parts

My friend Doug asked me not to leave out the juicy details from my quiet month. I keep scanning my mind for these, sure there must be something more. It’s funny; I hear the word “juicy” and automatically relate that to a) sex and b) scandal. Thankfully, the former is alive and well in my relationship, due no doubt in part by the lack of the latter. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Takeaways

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. When you know, you know. The hard part is so often making room to fully acknowledge what you know, especially if you *don’t* know what to *do* about the knowing. Sometimes you don’t even have to DO anything.

Sometimes what is needed is the full acknowledgement, the space to actually allow yourself to feel the thing that’s arising. In my case before August, this was a degree of exhaustion and burn-out, a need to get very quiet, to immerse myself fully in my here-and-now life, without extending energy to people I cannot actually see, touch, and hear.

If you ask me whether I’d rather have experiences or things, I will always choose experiences. As long as there’s good coffee.

It was scary. But the scary parts are so rarely as bad once you’re in them as what the imagination may conjure. The definition of courage is always feeling the fear and doing it anyway, whatever it happens to be.

The result? I feel softer. My heart literally feels plumper, if you can believe it. And also like I’m bringing a degree of intention and clarity back into my writing, life, and work as we edge towards a new season.

Happy 100th Birthday, Grammy

Grammy and me, 1974

My maternal grandmother would have turned 100 today. She was born on April 29, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s unknown to me whether the wake of the Russian Revolution the year before touched her young life indirectly; her parents had come to this country sometime in the decade or two before her birth, presumably to escape antisemitism and in hopes of a better life for their kids. She experienced a great deal of early loss: Her identical twin sister died when they were babies, and her mom passed away when she was a young girl. 

When I was 20 or so, I became obsessed with understanding her choice to convert to Christan Science. When she told me that she had not been allowed to enter the synagogue to say Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, my heart broke. I pictured her, sitting alone outside on the steps, while the all-male minyan prayed on the other side of the heavy doors.

There was no place in the Jewish tradition of that time for her grief, her voice. As a motherless young woman who was determined to put herself through school — she and her four sisters had moved out after their father remarried and had a new child with his second wife — I imagine she was restless to find a spiritual home that embraced and acknowledged the depth of her yearning for and connection to God.

A close friend, Gus, used to zip off in a hurry after their classes at Hunter College on Thursdays. One day, Celia asked to join her. The way she described that first introduction to the Christian Science church, you’d have thought she’d found nirvana — not to mention how many Yiddish accents dotted the space. In other words, she was not only not alone, she was very much with her people.

There is so much more to Grammy than this, of course, and so much more to this story than I will get into here. Suffice it to say, she was a force of a nature. We — my siblings and cousins — were all “jewels in the crown of [her] rejoicing.” She carried scripture everywhere and believed that God is Love and Love is God. In this way, we are not so different, Grammy and I.

She died when she was 92, I was 28, and my firstborn, Aviva was three-weeks old. She didn’t get to meet Pearl. She didn’t live to see me come out, and I sometimes wonder how she would have responded to that. Part of me thinks she would have fought me tooth and nail on it, and another part of me likes to believe she would have said she’d known all along. (I think this latter part is pure fantasy, but it’s interesting to consider.) Either she and Mani would’ve loved each other or butted heads, both of them so headstrong, with a deep religious fervor informing their worldviews.

In any case, I miss her. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to know her beyond my childhood, to have had some years with her of real, wrangling conversations, before dementia began to erode her capacity to recall what she already knew. She knew us all to the end, even if we repeated the same conversations over and over. She called out for her mama and her papa the night she died, and reached her arm across my daughter’s infant body as if spanning the generations in the transference of life. I will never forget that.

Happy birthday, Grammy. If you were here, we would eat mint chip ice cream and sing to you, then clap as you blew out the candles. In fact, I think I’ll eat a scoop in your honor.

Dinner for One


Pearl went out with his dad and Aviva didn’t feel like joining me. So here I am, just me and my laptop and a not-too-strong Cosmopolitan at my side. I am such a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, that it’s likely I won’t even finish the one drink — and having a cocktail midweek is virtually unheard of for me these or any days. Tonight, though, it just felt like a good call. I entertained getting a local beet salad, then realized who was I kidding and ordered a burger and fries.

Dinner for one. It’s been a while.

Taking myself out this evening is a gift to myself. It’s me saying: Hi, self. You’re working hard. You’re showing up. You’re loving your wife and your kiddos and your clients and your groups. You’re a little cooked tonight; don’t forget to love yourself, too. It’s not that I don’t most of the time, but it certainly can get lost in the shuffle. The days have been full, the world a heartache and also a place of beauty and connection, so many things always true at once. Isn’t this what I have always come back to, especially when I sit down to write?

The moments that move me to tears though they may not seem like anything major: Mani talking excitedly about the dog crate and other puppy supplies she ordered today, a writer choosing a date for her new blog to live, my daughter’s new song.

Last night, while V was singing, I finally cried. I cried for the kids. I cried for the kids in Parkland. I cried for kids who are navigating adolescence in a world where mass shootings are commonplace.  Her lyrics, her heart — sitting on the edge of her bed and listening to her undid me. I just let the tears fall as she sang what could be an anthem for her generation. I just read the back of the bartender’s t-shirt: 9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.

My food just arrived and now my hands are sticky with ketchup.

When I told Mani earlier I was thinking of going out to get a bite to eat, she said: “I think you should. I  think you should do whatever the hell you want.” “Really?” I asked. (This is a typical exchange between us.)

She went on to say yes. I’m paraphrasing, but she essentially said: Yes because you love hard and you work hard. Yes because you don’t need a reason or an excuse or a justification. I told her I was feeling a little unsure about work. Not what I’m doing, but whether I’m doing it “right.” She blinked at me and reminded me that stats for new businesses at the three-year mark. Oh, right, I remembered. It’s working. Just keep going. My business may not be brand new, but it’s probably a toddler in terms of business development.

There’s time for things to unfold. 

Then I recalled the three client conversations I had today, all with women at various stages of writing. The common thread? Letting things unfold. We go in all gangbusters to write a book, to build a business, what have you, and then this thing happens called Process. Nothing goes the way we thought it would. Maybe it goes even better. Maybe just different. The straight line, like that popular cartoon, is a tangled squiggly mess of a thing. It looks… real.

And what do I tell said writers? Trust the process, the unfolding. The shape of things will emerge. Keep writing, keep going, keep building. Read a lot of books. Talk to people. Get really quiet. Sit with the hard parts. Trust, trust, trust.

It’s all I’ve ever really written about, come to think of it. I bet at least half of the blog posts I’ve written over the past 11 years have boiled down to that one word — and that’s not just the Cosmo talking (though I have surprised myself and nearly polished off my drink).

“You have created a beautiful, successful business,” my wife calls to me as I put on my boots.

“Really?” I ask. (See? Typical.)

“Really.”

I take this in and reflect on the wonderful conversations with these clients today, ones where it was so easy for me to see them where they are and believe in where they’re headed. I had one last question for her before heading out to eat.

“Why is it so much easier for us to see each other’s wholeness than our own? Why is it that we have such wisdom for other people, yet struggle to apply it to our own writing and life and work?”

“It’s a distance thing,” she said. And of course she was right. Other people see what we do well, see our gifts and strengths and best qualities, in ways that we often don’t.  It can be one of the most beautiful aspects of being in right relationship — to ourselves, our creativity, our work, our families, our colleagues, our comrades. Ideally, we help build each other up — not in falsehoods or ego strokes, but in true and genuine seeing, encouragement, and presence.

And with that, I just took the last swig of my drink. The burger is gone and the fries a close second. I’ll leave a big tip and head home soon to watch Jeopardy! with my son, to say goodnight three times to my daughter, and to end another day of life with my love. Tomorrow, God willing, I’ll wake up and get to do it all over again.

The Reunion


Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.

Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.

**

After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.

I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.

I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.

Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.

**

When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.

“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.

I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.

This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.

Then I moved out and moved on.

**

Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.

By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.

One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room,  to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.

**

It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.

I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”

Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.

“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”