11 things after the last Shabbat of 2018

1. The first half of today was a cinnamon roll project with Aviva. After four hours of mixing, melting, blooming, rising, kneading, spreading, rolling, cutting, and baking — we dug into what was perhaps the most delectable thing I have ever eaten in my life, not counting the white lasagna Mani made for my 40th birthday five years ago. I am talking foodgasm quality wow.

2. After that, a nap on the couch in the sun while Pearl played with our neighbors. V rested too, and Mani did some work.

3. The apartment was quiet and smelled like cinnamon, which is delicious unless you have mast cell disease, in which case you will spend hours in a different room with the doors closed because cinnamon is a mast cell destabilizer. We kept a kitchen window open for the afternoon and that did the trick.

4. Pearl and I went to the Mullins Center at UMass after my siesta. I have figure skates from a million years ago and we rented a pair for him for $5. Some friends were supposed to meet us, but they forgot, but we stayed and skated on our own for about 45 minutes. It was so fun. I need to do that more often.

5. We went over to the house of the friends who forgot to meet us and hung out for a while. They had picked up a few pizzas, so my steady diet of carbs remained uncompromised. Phew! Aren’t you relieved?

6. Aviva’s babysitting tonight and tomorrow, socking away money for her upcoming NYC trip and, a longer-term goal, a used car for next year.

7. I have fallen completely off the holiday card wagon. I feel both at peace with and a little sad about this and wonder if I’ll get back on it next year or ever. I keep thinking of the friends I’m rarely in touch with but think and care about dearly, and I worry that they don’t know it. Is this just what happens over time, or am I doing something wrong?

8. Yesterday we were talking about negative bias — that easy slide towards what wasn’t good. And we made lists of good things from 2018. I’m also reading a novel right now called “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” and honestly, it’s such a reminder to honor life.

9. As I was waking up from napping, I watched the clouds moving swiftly from west to east outside the south-facing living room window. It was peaceful and restful.

10. More WWII moments in the news today. These two men, well over 100 years old each, leaving such legacies. May their memories be a blessing and inspire us to be courageous: cnn.it/2VdFrlB and bit.ly/2GO7WDc

11. Only three days until we change out our Frida Kahlo calendar for our Harrison Ford Bulldog calendar. Yee-haw!

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Join me in January for 11 days of writing 11 things, a practice Julie Lieberman Neale calls “a clarifying, liberating, surprisingly profound process.” Grab your spot here.

Holiness Is in How We Teach Our Children

Photo: Josh Appel, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland. “This is Siggy Weiser. He is a Holocaust survivor. 75 years later he is in looking as Jewish kids praying at the death camp Auschwitz, Mr. Wesier’s previous living area where he was threatened with death daily.”

My daughter’s shaving her head.

Well, actually, her cousin’s friend is doing the honors, in a college dorm room.

My daughter told me she has written something about the why of this. She forgot to send it to me, but says she will tomorrow.

I am looking forward to reading it.

My daughter is 15 going on a shaved head.

It’s just hair. This is what I tell myself. This is where I land. I listen to her voice, her dreams and ideas and fears and hardest places. I look at her eyes. Not her hair.

She studied the Holocaust last fall with her grandfather, my dad.

She has seen the shaved heads.

I have a tattoo. Two tattoos, actually. I might get more.

When Jews, Catholics, the Roma, gay and communist and disabled humans, reached Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups: Those who went straight to the gas chambers, and those who were stripped, shaved, tattooed, and sent to the barracks to work. Really, to die, just more slowly.

Some survived. They swore, never again. They whispered it. Secrets burned on skin, never to be talked about. Never a shaved head. Never a tattoo. The unspeakable.

What is it to take things things back, to reclaim, to honor the dead, to choose life, to take back ownership of the body?

What is it to express the spirit on skin?

How is our hair a symbol of autonomy and agency and choice — just as what we wear, how we speak, and how we love are all ways of declaring existence, selfhood, peoplehood, sovereignty, and worth?

My daughter is shaving off all of her hair.

Not because she is sick.

Not because she is unstable.

Not because she is rebellious.

Not because she is dishonoring memory.

I do not know her reasons yet, but I believe her when she tells me she has her reasons.

And what will I say, when I see her?

I will say: You are beautiful.

I will say: I love you.

I will say: Your being is a song to those who died.

I will say: Your songs soothe the ones who survived.

I will say: I can see your soul, your neshama, even more brightly.

I will say: This world needs you in it.

These are harrowing times for growing up. I call on my ancestors to light the way, to remind me that hair is just hair and that hair, too, can be holy.

That holiness is in how we teach our children and how we learn from our children.

That this dance across time is how we keep being here, despite the odds.

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

The Reunion, Part Two

After she read the piano reunion story on my blog, my mom pointed something out. Something that changed either everything or nothing about the emotional experience I’d had just hours earlier: We didn’t have a Steinway & Sons.

The baby grand at The Arbors had never been my piano after all, and what I perceived — and at the time wholeheartedly believed — to be a reunion with a childhood instrument was nothing of the sort. At least not in the way I had imagined.

At first, this struck me as almost desperately funny; there I had been, weeping, playing my heart out, on a keyboard it turned out I had never so much as laid hands or eyes on before.

But then, something else fluttered into me, something akin to shame. I felt sheepish, as if I’d done something wrong. Did I need to recant what I’d shared about how moving that thirty minutes had been? Was there something like a lie, a hint of fraudulence, tied up in my story, now that I had learned the truth? Other questions swam past, too: What had happened to the piano my parents had donated there? Where is it now?

Needless to say: All day, I’ve been considering perception.

I believed it to be my piano. Clearly I wanted, even needed, for this to be true. The experience of playing it had given something back to myself, of myself. In sitting down in that empty room, at what I thought was the piano that had witnessed me grow up, in doing so in the place where two of my grandparents lived their last years, time reached around its own body, performing a bind of sorts, clasping its own ends together and holding me safely inside that gentle grasp.

The tears that spilled weren’t, ultimately, about the actual piano, but for everything it had represented to me over the years, from earliest childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood and motherhood, through death and divorce and becoming and remarriage. As my hands hovered over and moved across those keys, something in me settled, as if the waters in me had quieted, revealing depths I’d always known were there.

It is said that we see what we want to see, and this may be a fact. For nearly 11 years, I was married to a man, devoted to our commitment and growing a family together. Coming out shattered that, but it didn’t make my life a sham. It took me some years to fully believe and embrace this, to let go of guilt or self-doubt, and not to punish myself for having lived an unconscious lie.

Deception is not the same as ignorance. Had I written about the piano reunion with the knowledge that came later that it wasn’t the piano of my youth, that would’ve been manipulative and dishonest.

But my experience had been authentic, untouched by any such knowledge, and this leads me to believe that the reunion stands. Maybe it was a reunion with some cherished part of my past, myself.

And in that case, my perception provided me with a potent gift, the gift of believing in meaning and memory, in the power of presence and practice to witness us as we grow and transform over the years.

In the end, the piano itself is nothing more than a symbol of time’s passage, of returning to roots and of letting roots go, of arriving at a place that exists only within, where the music has always lived, like an underground spring with no name.

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.”