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Student's bikes on a snowy campus day.

The Price of a College Admission Scandal

I had to pull my  jaw off the floor reading the recent reports of parents and college admissions consultants gaming the system. Even though the college admissions process has never been ‘fair,’ the hacks these people created stooped to a whole new level. I should qualify this post with the fact that as a fourth generation applicant to Smith College, I was a beneficiary of the uneven playing field myself.  Even though I was admitted to equally fine institutions, I attended Smith as a legacy. What’s more, all three of my children were recruited athletes to Ivy League institutions, competing in squash, and leading and captaining their respective college teams.  Although they were qualified candidates, the ability to bypass the general application pool was an enormous boon. These schools admit about 220 recruited athletes per year across all sports whereas the general application pool is flooded with upwards of 30,000 people. Tough odds for even the best of the best.

As in life, systemic privilege has always existed with college admissions, although typically more subtly, reserved for those in the know, those tipped off early as to how the game works. (I’ll go ahead and throw myself in that group.)  The parents who worked with “The Key,” however,  were made aware of a “side door,” and did whatever it took to gain entrance at the eleventh hour.  It was like a big, bad case of cutting in the carpool line. The transcripts included in the indictment depict parents who had no problem with the six-digit price tag for an admissible test score, on the condition their children were none the wiser, as if betraying a child’s trust was fine as long as it went undiscovered. One father even laughed at his child innocently assuming he’d achieved a good ACT score on his own.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nine, Hannah Webber is a middle class mother who prescribes to the slow and steady approach (much like mine): nightly dinners, homework sessions, attendance at sports practice, healthy breakfasts, school pick-ups and drop-offs or at least a best effort.  There is mundanity to the routine, a year-in-year-out scheduling of parent-teacher conferences, supporting kids through ups and downs, but always emphasizing hard work and doing one’s best above all else.  Consistency. Trust. Listening.  It isn’t always easy. And again, probably speaks to the privilege of a childhood where a parent is at home to provide the steady support. But just like many parents today, Hannah Webber will realize even her best efforts aren’t enough when pitted against parents with money.

Privilege is pervasive in reality as well as fiction, but the recent revelation of cheating has provided our culture with a moment – not only to gawk at the defendants’ insane behavior, but to evaluate the status quo and the spectrum of admissions abuses: how donations to schools are treated, why athletics and athletes should matter so much, how unlimited test taking time and bogus doctor diagnoses has become a thing.  It’s an important conversation, but I hope the point that hits home the hardest for parents (including Hannah Webber) is that integrity, honesty, and a relationship with their children built on trust will always be worth more than any diploma!!

 

Competitive Parenting

Competitive Parenting: No One Wins

The following article was originally published on GrownandFlown.com.

It’s not like a gymnastics competition where the judges hold up scores at the end of a floor routine. It’s not like you can “stick the landing” either. It’s not like the announcement comes over the PA system: “A perfect 10! She’s achieved the perfect 10!”  No, a mother doesn’t stand on a podium, beaming at the end of the day, while the grand maternal order of the universe hangs a gold medal from her neck, declaring her the best of all time.

Hey, I’ll admit I played. Big time. This is a confessional and I was all in. I remember one year-end Prize Day when my kids all won the highest academic honors for their respective grades (I think my youngest was in Kindergarten, but hey) and a rival mother with four brilliant children passed me filing out of the assembly and whispered, “Three for three, I’m impressed.”

It’s embarrassing, and shameful but I’m just warning you once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

I’ve spent time reflecting on this (written a novel in fact) and am going to open the kimono a little further here to share some of why I fell prey. And since everything gets blamed on mothers, I’ll blame this one on mine. But really, as the only child of an alcoholic, dysfunctional marriage, my role in that happy little threesome was to put on a good face, achieve plenty and show the world everything was really okay. Not just okay, super! It took a long time to let the role of chief marketing officer go.

What was less unique to me and more of a universal experience, I believe, was choosing to be a stay at home mom in an era when many of my female friends were remaining in the workforce. After ten years of holding interesting and upwardly mobile positions in finance and retail, I decided to stay home after the birth of my youngest. Three babies in 60 months, just like clockwork, back then I was still trying to win points for Harvard Business School honed efficiency. I tried to do it all and be it all for a while, but that was a recipe for disaster. (See previous paragraph referring to alcoholic family). But in the recesses of my personality I still needed to prove that staying home was the right decision. Of course, I knew in my heart it was the right decision for me, but still, I needed to manifest that sentiment to the world. In the absence of semi-annual performance reviews, my children’s report cards were my tangible affirmation.

No matter how you ended up playing this insane version of Monopoly, when you find yourself tsk-tsking the foibles of other children, most likely children of parents who are not as committed/dedicated/present as you are, just stop. No matter how well you follow the rules, all children stumble, they all fall, they all feel pain, and from time to time, they all lose their way. When mine (now young adults) eventually had their moments, large and small, I felt shame over the superior air I’d taken. I’d been an asshole, not just strutting out of year end assemblies, but at the bus stop. Daily.  (And yes, I promise that I’m working on an epic article about the Beacon Hill bus stop!)

Don’t become the mother I recently spoke to who hired a consultant to help her college junior get a better internship. Get it under control now or you’ll be competing over whose child makes more money, who marries better, who produces more grandchildren. JUST STOP.

Your child’s mental health and happiness is the most important thing. Turn your hovering energy inward, discover your own passion and invest time in whatever friendships you still have. If I could do it, so can you.

tender mother and daughter moment

Learning to Say Goodbye to your Children is an Overrated Skill

The following article was originally published on GrownandFlown.com.

I scoffed at the parents, briefcases in hand, dressed smartly, waving furiously and tearing up at the “Goodbye Window.” I donned an ensemble of sweats, maybe even the t-shirt I’d slept in, and a hat and down jacket long enough to cover the entire mess. My eldest son was three and a half and I’d drop him each morning in the ‘green room,’ his younger siblings in tow. Sometimes literally drop him.

I had no time for drawn out goodbyes, for melodrama, for prolonging this chore. My baby was fussing, and my milk was letting down and if I got out of there quickly, I might be able to nurse her, tuck her in her crib and cajole my toddler into a  morning nap or ‘quiet time’, or at least render him a zombie in front of a Thomas the Tank Engine video. I made a bee-line out of the nursery school’s front yard, dreaming of forty-five minutes more sleep before needing to return for pick-up.

Looking back, I see that I put an inordinately high value on my children’s independence. Like they were baby sea turtles and I was their biggest cheerleader, rooting them along from the hole in which they hatched, across a treacherous, sandy beach to breaking waves where they might swim off haphazardly, as if once their tiny bodies submerged, crossed some invisible goal line, I’d be relieved of all this mothering. I might be able to sleep again. I even believed, during those first foggy years, the goal line was as attainable as the nursery school’s threshold.

I learned to say goodbye to my children, time after time.

I would witness other prolonged goodbye rituals after the nursery school, at the bus stop when they went off to elementary school, for example. I snickered morning after morning as one particular father jumped up and down, trying to glimpse his daughter through the bus window, waving goodbye, blowing kisses. (BTW he turned out to be a serial killer, but I’ll save that for another article.)  Anyway, I had a dog that needed walking, and dirty dishes and a pile of laundry back at home waiting…

When my children became bar and bat mitzvah, I glowed with pride as the doctrine came down, “You are no longer children, you are responsible adults in the eyes of God.” Could I also operate under that assumption?  Probably not until they received their drivers licenses, but soon! Very soon!

I’d deliver them to boarding schools in the fall, and after every break, telling myself all these million goodbyes were character building, were necessary if they were ever to stand on their own, if they were ever to succeed, to compete.  Later, there’d be college dorms where I carried boxes up flights of stairs, but I’d stopped making their beds and putting their clothes away, thinking You are old enough to put your shirts on hangers. Besides, I was double-parked.

They now have jobs and apartments of their own. They come home for holidays, and after a few weeks of over-flowing joy and bustling activity, they are gone again. My house is way too large without them. My refrigerator is empty. And I wonder why exactly I tried so hard to master the art of goodbye. What exactly were the benefits of that skill?

I will say it now, scream it, even. Saying goodbye sucks. Maybe it’s deep-seeded in our species’ survival instinct – a mother’s instinct to make her wobbly-kneed youngsters sturdy, nudging them off into the forest to hunt and forage on their own. Survival of the fittest and all that. But it is a mother’s last pain to endure, watching her children leave.

However, I can be patient. Someday grandchildren will arrive. I will go visit them, and they will have to kick me out.

Back on Campus – School Stories

back on campusYou’ve probably seen all the photos on Facebook and Instagram – it’s graduation season and I can’t believe how my friends’ children are growing up! Graduations mark a big accomplishment for students as well as parents. Whether its high school or college, it is monumental to have crossed this major finish line.

Our middle son graduated from college on Memorial Day Weekend. It was a wonderful weekend that brought our family together to honor him and all his hard work. There were ceremonies and cocktails and dinners, but what I most appreciated was being on campus.

A campus is an island whether its remotely located or embedded in a town. It’s a self-contained world with traditions and a culture and rules of its own. It is self-governing and is populated by a revolving door of young adults. It has its common spaces and its hiding places. It has its own rhythm with quiet mornings and raucous late nights.

As a parent, walking onto a campus, or into a dorm or classroom building, feels like sneaking – dare I say trespassing after all the tuition we’ve laid out! But we aren’t supposed to be there, when we visit we are voyeurs to a special place and time that is no longer ours. And our children, who have license to occupy the space, might do so with the mindset of a traveler on an extended journey. They will be moving on, after all. So, it becomes a first home away from home, an experiment in living alone.

Aah if the walls could talk. The campus has seen growth and love and dissent and resistance. The campus has seen victory and protest. The campus has seen homesickness and nostalgia. The campus has witnessed trepidation and pride.

Maybe that is why, in addition to the romance of an actual green quadrangle surrounded by ivy-laden brick buildings, I have always loved the campus novel. What do you think of this line up:

I devoured all these books. A writing teacher had me watch “The Sterile Cuckoo,” starring a very young Liza Manelli and filmed on the Hamilton College campus. There are the more main stream hits: Love Story, Animal House, and Harry Potter but I think I’ve made a point – drama or comedy, literary fiction, or a trashy delve into Restless Virgins, lots of people find the campus entertaining. There is something primal about a world unto its own – it’s a microcosm of society, with all sorts of “Lord of the Flies” possibilities.

I am working on the final revisions of my novel, The Nine, which is also set on a boarding school campus. When I wrote EDEN, I hadn’t been aware that there was a whole genre around the “saying-goodbye-to-the-family-summer-home” story line. I am well aware, however, there is a long history of great campus novels. They have been a mainstay of American literature since before Holden Caulfield bolted for New York City. Campuses are filled with intrigue and mystery and the adults in charge of them are managing conflict and staving off scandal. It’s ripe, people. It’s ripe.

I would love to hear what your favorite campus novels are and why!!

in preparation of passover

In Preparation for Passover

We hosted our first Seder as newlyweds in Cincinnati with other transplant friends, and later in our walk-up on Hancock Street in Boston when our kids were little. On Hancock Street, we’d gather snugly around a dining-room table (which now serves as a kitchen table in our current home). I recall those evenings as harbingers of spring, sunlight angling through sooty, city windows, shining on the yellow daffodils I’d purchased at the grocery store. My little girl in a white short-sleeved dress and patent leather shoes – I hadn’t fully committed to Judaism and the décor was some version of Easter.

If there is any one tradition or holiday that sold me on the Jewish religion, it was Passover. I have the fondest memories of being dazzled by the Oelbaum’s Seder as a young girl. Again, John and I were invited to the Meisel’s Seders in Cincinnati where I aspired to ever having a family that would interact with such passion.

By 2004,  I’d converted, the kids were on their way to becoming bar and bat mitzvah, and we moved to Chestnut Street. While John and the kids may have been excited about other characteristics of our new home, like a big TV in the family room, or a bedroom of their own, I fell in love with the dining room and a long table that would become an altar every Friday night. I had visions of progeny around that table every Passover.

Preparing for Passover is the beginning of the spiritual journey.

I reflect on all the Jewish women making pesach in their homes as I do in my mine – cleaning, weeding out, preparing for renewal. I also think of all of the women over the past three thousand years who’ve prepared in similar ways right at this point in the calendar. Our conveniences and techniques are different, but we are connected by the desire to sanctify our homes, transforming our dining rooms into holy places.

I also recognize non-Jews who strive for the same harmony in their homes, a holiness stemming from love of family and raising children. As mothers and hostesses, keepers of an unspoken, domestic religion, we all share a generosity of spirit and sustenance.

On the morning of the Seder, with the air rich with hyacinth, I billow a crisply starched, white tablecloth over the dining room table, and honor my matrilineage. The linen napkins were passed down from my maternal grandmother, my namesake, Jeanne Wilmarth Hallenbeck, a women who passed away when I was two but who I’ve heard scores of stories about from my mother. I have a black and white photograph portrait of her framed on a small pantry counter just outside the dining room. She is holding a bouquet,  the maid of honor at her sister’s wedding. I imagine her very social era of luncheons, teas, and dinners when it was common to have several sets of placemats, dinner napkins, and luncheon napkins all with embroidered monograms. Receiving them myself as a young bride, I was afraid to use them for fear of staining. Now, they are a tactile way to remember. Like a black and white Mona Lisa, she radiates an approving smile from her photographed face.

The silver candelabras are from my mother and were wedding gifts from her grandparents. Before everyone sits, I will light their six candles before blessing the festival lights:

Baruhk ata Adonai, Eloheinu melecholam. Asher kidshanu bar mitzvah tov, vitzi vanu l”hadlik ner shel Yom Tov.

May it be Your will, God of our ancestors, that You grant my family and all Israel a good and long life. Remember us with blessings and kindness; fill our homes with your Divine Presence. Give me the opportunity to raise my children and grandchildren to be truly wise, lovers of God, people of truth, who illuminate the world with Torah, good deeds and the work of the Creator. Please hear my prayer at this time. Regard me as a worthy descendant of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, our mothers, and let my candles burn and never be extinguished. Let the light of your face shine upon us. Amen.

“Regard me as a worthy descendant” – those words echo in my mind as I open my silverware drawer. For a large crowd, I need both my wedding silver, given lovingly by many older relatives, as well as my mother’s silver, which had been passed down from her grandmother. As I squeeze together enough place settings, I smile at how large our Seder has become.

I open the cabinet holding the special crystal wine goblets. They are Victorian in shape, etched with spring-like floral patterns – they are from John’s great aunts, Lillian, Bella, and Sophie, and his grandmother Rose. These women posed a funny foursome. Lillian, Bella, and Sophie were conservative Jews and very religious. They were old spinsters, living together in Philadelphia and later in Miami Beach, keeping kosher homes. By the time John and I married, Sophie was the only one of the four alive. We visited her in Miami often, and when she heard we were keeping a Jewish home and hosting Passover, she was so delighted she gave us her Seder plate, which she had purchased with her sisters on a trip to Israel.

I set the table with white, gold-rimmed dishes John’s father presented to us in honor of our new home. It seemed as if it had been crated for years. They are from Czechlosavakia had been received by his mother, Rose, as a wedding present from her groom’s family in Europe. I picture her an excited, beaming bride, receiving such an extravagant gift on her embarkation to adult life. Arthur’s eyes tear at the sight of what was once familiar. It’s like having his mother there with us. I know how he feels.

Our Seder table is a living, expanding, combination of the old and the new. There is a silver Kiddush cup I bought John in honor of our new home, and the silver pitchers I bought for the hand washing not long after. There are the colorful Afikomen covers the kids made in Sunday school. Even in their crudeness, I use them as a reminder of how far we have come, both spiritually and physically as a family.

John leads the Seder thoughtfully and deliberately, working from a new Haggadah edited by Jonothan Safran Foer, a writer I very much admire. We upgraded just last year from a more juvenile, story-book version, which had been an upgrade from the days when we photocopied one very traditional version and felt bound by its structure, and cheapened by the flimsy, tearing pages.

When I put the finishing touches on the table, the toys symbolizing the ten plagues, a wine glass for Elijah, a water glass for Miriam, salt water for dipping, I am filled with gratitude. How blessed I am to have a family and friends who want to gather and create a magical evening filled with stories and questions and debate and song. How blessed I am to have children to pass these napkins down to, these dishes, this silver.

The Passover Seder is a telling – the passing down of a story, a story of a people once enslaved and now free, a celebration of our ability to move and act in the world, a story not only of a people, but now my people. Tonight our connection to our ancestors won’t just be spoken, but demonstrated at this table, my altar is a tribute to our mothers past.

John has grown into his role as masterful leader of the Seder. He sends out questions to our guests ahead of time, a custom adopted from Nancy Meisel in Cincinnati. The question is the prompt for meaningful conversation after we’ve had our four glasses of wine, after we’ve told the story four ways and four times, and after we’ve shared the symbolic food on the Seder plate.

Every year John works hard to come up with a perfect, though-provoking question.

Questions in the past have ranged from the basic: if you were leaving Israel, what would you take (akin to if your house was burning and you had to leave in a hurry, what would you take with you?) What are your basics? What are you a slave to? Who is your Pharoah? What is your Egypt? What song exemplifies freedom to you? (That was actually a huge hit and really fun) There is always a lively family group chat in the weeks preceding – with the kids wondering what the question will be this year?

One Passover tradition is to welcome newcomers or strangers, people who don’t have another place to go. Sometimes I worry our first-time guests won’t know what they are stepping into. They may be surprised or intimidated by the question, what do they think when they receive John’s email? Our regulars are a little crazy. There is my young nephew who spews wisdom beyond his years like a prophet, the personification of Elijah himself. We sing and Charlie accompanies on the piano, there is laughter and heated debate. It starts early and goes really late and there is a lot to eat.

This year we will be hosting twenty-one. That old dining-room table / now kitchen table will serve as the extension to our dining room table. Our Seder will be on Friday, April 6, not on the traditional night, but on the Shabbat at the end of the 8-day holiday so we can get everybody home. April 6 is the Sabbath and my mother’s birthday. She would have been 75. I will light a candle for her and one for John’s mother, Mary, her yartzeit being just 5 days later. Their light will shine even more so at our table.

Handwriting – On and Off the Wall

I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival a few weeks ago on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Two other She Writes Press authors and I had a fruitful day talking to readers and selling our novels. When a friend of mine stopped by to purchase a copy of EDEN, I took an extra moment to write a special inscription before signing my name. She showed her young nephew the page I had just personalized and, to my surprise, helped him decipher the language as if it was hieroglyphics.

“Kids can’t read script these days,” she said.

That statement has stuck with me for weeks. If kids can’t read script, they obviously aren’t writing in cursive either. Gone are the days of lined paper and elementary school lessons in handwriting. What a shame, because the act of writing, freely, by hand, with flow, is a cathartic, wonderful experience. Will the only option for future generations be to use a keyboard? Along with the artistic flare of handwritten verse, we’ll such a beautiful glimpse into a person’s personality…

Having saved many of my mother’s personal belongings, one of the things that still jolts my heart when I glance at it, is her tattered address book, filled with entries in her handwriting. Seeing her handwriting takes me back in time to a place where she mailed me letters, left me notes, jotted grocery lists. Her handwriting is so uniquely hers, pretty, casual, loopy, easy, educated. (A natural lefty, my mother was trained to write with her right hand in a classroom in the 1950’s where her left hand was tied to the chair.) There are also cards and letters delivered by the mailman that make a smile spread across my face upon  recognizing the handwriting on the envelope. (Snail mail, can you believe it?)

There is definitely a feminine style and a masculine style of cursive. There’s a well-mannered style, and a rushed style. A good friend of mine might expand more on this topic as he recently confessed that his shtick analyzing hand-writing on cocktail napkins has become a successful conversation starter in bars…. Wink wink.

People often ask me where I like to write and if I have a routine. I do have a routine, but sometimes my most creative moments are when I buck the routine, get out of the house, and write free hand in a moleskin journal. I can rif for several pages on a minor topic, or I’ll often pull the car over and write part of a scene. Guess what kids, script is fast, no need to lift the pen, and doesn’t require battery power!

An end cap to this handwriting obsession came last weekend in Yom Kippur services. The rabbi’s sermon included a reference to Daniel at Belshazzar’s feast where he was the only one who could read the writing on the wall…thus coining the phrase….and being the only one at the feast who was able to warn the King that his days were numbered.

Will cursive become our generation’s secret code? A relic from the old days that only people of a certain age can read? I feel ancient just writing this blog. I make a real effort to live a young life, but when a kid stares at my book inscription like it’s something from Land of the Lost…. Oh my.

purification

Purification: Gratitude in Simplicity and Newness

purification

The essential oil I’ve been rubbing on the souls of my feet the past few mornings is called “Purification.” It sits by my yoga mat and because I ran out of my favorite lavender oil, I have been using it instead as a sensory boost. After all, purification is a lofty ideal. When I later learned, however, that the blend was intended to battle bad smells, I laughed.

Approaching the Jewish High Holy days, I’d had a different kind of purification in mind: atonement, making amends, an overall spiritual cleanse. It’s the time of year when things start up again, school is back in session, vacation is over, and, no matter one’s age, the opportunity to start fresh hangs in the crisp fall air.

In my musing about purification, I realized I have the most elemental cleansing agents at my front door: fire and salt water. I do not have to buy these things in a pricey glass bottle. They are not in short supply. However, coming into contact with fire, one is more often faced with destruction than purification. My brother and sister-in-law recently suffered a bad fire in their home. In dealing with their loss during the aftermath, fire was definitely cast as the enemy. Despite the upheaval the fire caused, it also stripped away all their accoutrements, taking them back to the basics. Shamans and healers have often used fire in renewal and purification ceremonies. Fire results in rapid transformation and releasing drama. Fire simplifies.

Don’t worry, I wasn’t so insensitive as to mention the silver lining of a house fire while my displaced relatives camped out with us.

Our home is surrounded by seawater, also a well-known cleansing agent since the beginning of time. John had a great aunt in Miami who used to trudge her dishes down to the sea whenever her kosher kitchen was compromised. And in my quirky old-wives tale mentality, I’ve always praised seawater as a cure-all. When my kids battled poison ivy or warts or a bad complexion – forget the dermatologist, jumping in the ocean was my prescription. Yet when my other set of in-laws called this morning to say their home in Florida was being ravaged by rain and tidal surges caused by Hurricane Irma, the whole purification angle didn’t seem the right place to venture.

My sister-in-law warned I should be on the lookout for locusts. At least we’re still laughing. Did I mention that the house fire was caused by a burning bush? There are signs all around us.

In EDEN, the Meister family rebuilds after the 1938 Hurricane, in the spirit of renewal and getting back to basics. But nobody can build a fortress against human nature. Vulnerability is at the core of what it is to be human.

Later this month, I’ll be in services with my family. I’ll be asked to take personal inventory, to recall how “I’ve missed the mark in the past year”, all in a quest for something akin to purification. There will be no salve to aid in the work the liturgy asks of me. My mind will undoubtedly wander, until I start dwelling on the people who aren’t with me anymore. Every autumn I’m asked to walk through the metaphorical fire, where I’ll well up with actual salt-water tears. Opportunities for purification abound, however, they never come in a bottle.

a-tree-a-son

A Tree, A Son, and A Book: A Different Take on Mother’s Day

I published this article on Huffington Post on May 9, 2017.

Renowned Cuban poet Jose Martí underscored the human need for creative expression when he wrote, “There are three things every person should do in his or her life — plant a tree, have a son, and write a book.” You don’t have to take Marti literally to understand the crux of his message : CREATE! To create, and more importantly to leave a legacy, whether it be with plants, people, or art and ideas, is critical. Martí’s quote suggests that creating something where nothing had been before is at the core of a life’s purpose. As we approach Mother’s Day, a day sometimes filled with more longing than joy, it helps to reflect on the spirit of Martí’s quote and celebrate the grander, creative impulse swirling throughout the universe, which is accessible to everyone, all the time.

I lost my mother thirteen years ago, and I lost my grandmother and mother-in-law each about two years ago. Since then, I’ve had nobody to send a Mother’s Day card to. A weird way to think about my loss, but still, a socially imposed loss to pile on top of the real grief. And, as for being a mother myself, there was nothing quite as humbling. I never felt as if I “created” my children, that I could take “credit” for them, but that they were placed in my loving care until maturity. Of course they were conceived inside my body, but they emerged such strong individuals, I was sometimes put off balance. It’s an oversimplification, but my role was to tend to them: water them, pull some weeds, for sure, but mostly provide fresh air and sunshine. Akin to the realization that comes after any all-consuming endeavor, my children shaped me as much as I shaped them.

On Mother’s Day 2015, thirty days after my mother-in-law’s passing, my husband and I planted a sugar maple tree in her memory. I planted tulip bulbs about her base to bloom in May and we enjoy her fiery red foliage in September. As for my own mother, I remember her while toiling in the flowerbeds, her energy humming about like an insect in my ear.

Now in my back fifty, I’m fortunate to have sent my adult children off into the world. I’m fortunate to have cultivated a garden and planted trees. And now I’m equally humbled to have published a novel, EDEN, which was just released last week.

EDEN is a family saga, but it’s also a book with some important ideas. It’s a book I wrote to honor the mothers who came before me: my mother, mother-in-law, and both of my grandmothers. It’s fiction, but I hope it also puts a voice to things they were not able to speak about during their own lives. It’s a story whose ideas are also important for our daughters to read, so that they don’t take their opportunities for granted.

And so the cycle continues. The nurturing I received from the “gardeners” of my youth instilled in me a desire to cultivate another generation: of children, trees, and stories. And I have been blessed. “To plant a tree, have a son, and write a book” results in a life filled with love, loss, heartache, ideas, art, and a connection to the earth. That’s what I plan to celebrate on Sunday.

spreading her love

Spreading Her Love: The Ritual of Letting Go

My Mother’s Yarzheit…. Sedona, AZ March 21, 2017

Some people can barely suppress their shock when I tell them I am still spreading my mother’s ashes, 13 years after her passing. Most people don’t have such authority when it comes to these types of things… there are typically other opinionated relatives to contend with. And there is typically one favorite place or a family homestead, an obvious choice for a person’s eternal resting place. Parceling out my mother’s ashes might seem sacrilegious. But we didn’t share much religion. I don’t have siblings, my parents divorced, and at the time of her death, she had no real home. When special delivery rang my bell in Boston with a box from the crematorium in Florida, my insides ached all over again with the stabbing pain I felt upon first learning of her death. Only a couple of weeks had passed, but this box, so heavy and tangible, its ordinary card board covered with packing labels and stickers, offended whatever equilibrium I’d gained.

I had no idea what to do with it.  She hadn’t left instructions, there was no right answer. So I came up with something that felt right to me. My mother’s cremains have become the vehicle for my honoring her over and over again. Instead of performing one ritual, I’ve carried out many private rituals over the years. Her ashes have been judiciously spread all over the globe. My mother rests in places she would have liked to visit, from the southern tip of Chile to as far north as Iceland.  The weekend before she died she spoke of taking a trip around the world. My reaction back then, given her health, had been skeptical.  So now, it seems only right that I bring her along with me.  Her first journey with me was to the great barrier reef in Australia.  My mother loved to snorkel and talked about wanting to visit there for as long as I can remember.

The bulk of her ashes sit with me in Boston. She is in a beautiful green-glazed, ceramic, ginger jar from China, sitting on a shelf close to where I write. But whenever I pack for an exotic destination, I spoon a little bit of my mom into a Ziploc bag. Scooping up the white granules with a kitchen spoon is strange enough, and I imagine many wouldn’t have the stomach for it, but it’s allowed her to join me in Australia, Africa, Bhutan, Peru, Patagonia, the Alps, and the Rockies. She even summited Mt Kilimanjaro. She’s been sprinkled off the top of many spectacular mountains. Honoring my mother in this way has kept us closer than pure memories could have.  I carry my mom in my heart and mind, but there’s also a little bit of her tucked inside my luggage. I’ve recited a prayer of love to her as she scatters into the wind, often with friends by my side, or with my husband and children.  I sometimes take traveling companions by surprise when announcing, “this is the place.”  Then performing yet another letting-go ceremony.

On the thirteenth anniversary of my mom’s death, my daughter, who happens to be named after my mother, and I spent some time during her spring break hiking and having a healthy vacation in Sedona, AZ. The scenery was spectacular. We were getting up early, doing yoga, and eating well. We even had a spa day, something my mother would have had a hard time indulging in.  But she was definitely with us.

I sense her pride in our relationship, always nearby rooting us on. She is proud of the women we are, and that we have become those women partly to honor her. To honor all the things she was unable to do. After climbing a beautiful path up a red rock formation, we stopped to take a break and I knew it was the right place.  How I wish she was still with us in person. But she was with us in spirit, she always is.

home for the holidays

Home for the Holidays: Parenting in the College Years

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My last two blog posts covered far-reaching trips I’ve recently taken to Africa and South America.  When people asked me what our plans were for this holiday season,  I think they were expecting a more exotic reply, but I was happy to answer, “A good ‘ol family staycation…”  The two kids that are still in college requested that we don’t go anywhere this year, and John and I were more than happy to oblige.

The lack of plans allowed them to spend time with high school friends as well as for us to visit with other families in Boston.  Yes there are dentist appointments in the mix,….  but here are some highlights of our staycation:

·      Home cookin’…..  after months at college, the kiddoes are craving family classics

·      Lighting our menorah – first time in a long time kids are home for all nights of Hanukah

·      Shabbat dinners – Jack, our son in the workforce and Emily, his girlfriend, will be able to join us on 12/30!

·      Fires in the fireplace

·      Chinese Food (when we’re not home cookin’)

·      Family squash /yoga / soul cycle

·      Going to the movies – “Lalaland” was great, next up “Office Christmas Party” and “Star Wars”

·      Playing hearts at the kitchen table

·      Rocking to The Roots at the House of Blues

·      Going to the TD Garden to watch the Celtics and the Bruins

Best of all, time for reading – I’m reading Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh – which I am loving.  Jennifer will be joining our book group for a special dinner party in early January !!

…AND writing!  I set a goal of finishing a manuscript by the end of 2016 and I’ll be damned, with some late nights, I am going to make it!  So after you wet your appetite with EDEN, you shouldn’t have to wait too long….

If you are enjoying your own staycation this week, I would love to hear your highlights…

Melody Beatty’s daily meditation in Journey to the Heart for December 26 gets to the core of it:

 

We search for sacred spaces, spiritual

experiences, and truths.  But the holiest

places are often found when we spend

time with people we love.

May your home be the sanctuary you crave.

Love and Peace in 2017