Talking Forgiveness


On Sunday, I attended a brunch hosted by my friends Kristen Howerton and Laura Tremaine. We were privileged enough to have Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin of the Parents Circle- Families Forum (PCFF) come tell us their remarkable stories and speak about their efforts toward peace through radical forgiveness. The PCFF is a joint Palestinian Israeli grassroots organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. It promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge.

Robi (her story here) is a bereaved Israeli mother whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper, and Bassam (his story here) is a grieving Palestinian father whose ten-year-old daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers.

You may not think of me as a shrinking violet, but there are a couple of subjects that shut me right up. Top of the list: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though it affects me deeply and personally– I have family in Israel, including my brother and my nephew– I don’t engage about it publicly very often. I tell myself that when it comes to Palestine and Israel, I am overly emotional and under-qualified, and that whatever I say, I’ll be hurting someone I care about. Until now, I’ve dealt with that by avoiding the subject. I went to the brunch with the hope of changing that, of beginning to reach for my own voice. I challenged myself to learn, to get in the discussion, to be unafraid to make mistakes. I never could keep my big yap shut for very long.

Hearing about the losses of Robi’s son and Bassam’s daughter felt like being kicked in the chest. It was not an easy morning, but it was a hopeful one.

Robi was quick to point out that she doesn’t have an easy definition for forgiveness, or any definition at all, really. I relate to this. I’ve always thought forgiveness is a word that’s bandied about way too easily. I’ve wondered- can forgiveness be manufactured? Can you just decide to forgive someone because you think you should? Or is forgiveness an action? And if so, what action?

Robi fielded the question to us:

What is forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is owning your part,” one person answered. “Forgiveness is giving up your just right to revenge,” said another.

“Forgiving allows you to stop being a victim of that circumstance,” said Robi.

The PCFF uses art exhibitions, film, dialogue meetings, and various other creative and humanitarian projects to discuss the human side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and why mutual understanding of the “other side” and a reconciliation framework is necessary for any sustainable peace agreement.

I was especially captivated by Bassam and Robi’s emphasis on the importance of storytelling– of narrative– in relationship-building.

“Once you understand how the other sees their story, they become human.” said Robie.

If I’m impassioned about anything, it’s the healing power of narrative, both on individual and larger cultural levels. I left feeling emotionally wrecked, but also mobilized and inspired.

You can sign up for the PCFF newsletter here, to learn more about their ongoing programs. Please do!

Travel Guilt


Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that tired old subject: being a working mom…

I was in upstate NY last weekend for the Woodstock Writers Festival, which was an absolute delight (Thanks, Martha Frankel! And for the photo, Kevin Buso). Compared to many moms I know, I go out of town on business fairly often. I have conflicting feelings about this. I always miss my family. I always experience things I wish they could be experiencing with me.


I also love waking up WHENEVER I WAKE UP, with no one interrupting my dreams by crawling on my head or farting in the bed. I love not making anyone breakfast. I love going to the hotel gym, or reading, or catching up on emails in bed over a giant pot of Earl Grey tea.

This is an extremely privileged version of working mom-ness, to be sure. And I wallow in a lot of guilt, as many of us do, about my time spent away from my child. I feel even more guilty that I enjoy it. Then I remember: Scott goes out of town all the time, because it’s his job. His job is awesome, and brings so much to all of our lives. Not the least of which is our house and the food on our table and drum lessons and groceries from Whole Foods and and and…. But that’s not the end of the story. He loves his work. He never would have considered giving up his work. Why would he?

All of this is also true for me, and yet I feel compelled to apologize for it.

Many of my friends justify working with the idea that it’s better for their child, because their resulting sense of fulfillment makes them a better mother.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m also not sure it matters.

Scott would never say that he should work because his music makes him a better dad. He would say that he finds joy in parenting and he finds joy in his work and that both of these things are important to him and help give him a sense of meaning and purpose.

Some of my anguish is certainly due to a cultural double-standard, but not all of it. Some of it is the sense of urgency brought on by the fact that my seven-year-old currently looks like he’s about ready to take the SATs and has a girlfriend and a report card and a lot of opinions and I am acutely aware of how few years I have left that he will still want me to carry him to bed. Which is a good thing for my lower back, but a devastating development for my poor heart.


I look at his sweet little nose, his still-round cheeks. He catches me staring at him, throws his hands in the air and says, “WHAT are you looking at?”

“You,” I say. “You’re so big!

He rolls his eyes. “Everyone needs to grow up sometime, Mom.”

I think- what am I doing, spending my days facing the f-ing blank page again and again, when I could just be connecting with this precious being every minute of every day? And then I think, he will grow and change, no matter how hard I stare and try to memorize his face. He will grow and he will grow and there are things that will be irretrievably lost. We will also collect treasures I can’t even anticipate yet. And while all this growing and losing and gaining is happening, I’m still going to string words together on paper every day, because that’s what I’m compelled to do.

I just interviewed a super-famous and crazy-cool actress in her sixties (it’s still a secret- I’ll let you know more in a couple of weeks!), and she told me: “Jillian, I was so guilty about the time I spent working when my kids were young. And I shouldn’t have been. I really shouldn’t have been.”

I have been clinging to that like a buoy in the mom-ocean of blame and competence and guilt and joy and judgment and acceptance and fear and love.

The working mom discussion can become so strident and politicized on both sides. The truth is that all of these grown-up decisions have consequences, don’t they? Either way. Consequences suck.

But last weekend I found myself staring out at the Catskill mountains, getting ready to talk to a bunch of people about memory and art and writing– much of the stuff I’ve been deeply engaged with since I was a little kid. I thought, there are consequences, yes. I’m most at peace when I can hold them in the same hand as I do my embarrassment of riches.

Why I Sing Loudly at Whole Foods


“She used to sing musical theater loud in the grocery store,” said Scott, when we and the other people in our foster parent training were talking about what sort of strategies we might use to address public tantrums.

“I did?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember that?” he seemed shocked.

“Oh yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

How could I have possibly forgotten about the singing? That was the best idea I ever had! I didn’t make it up- it was an amalgam of advice from mommy bloggers and late night phone calls to old friends. But it was, indeed, a great strategy. How had I forgotten it completely? My memories of those first few years with Tariku are peppered with strange blank spots– probably the result of the combined trauma of what we as a family went through.

But when he mentioned it, it all came flooding back. So in case it might be useful to anyone, I thought I’d share it…

Often, children whose nervous systems have been impacted by trauma can become easily overwhelmed and have hair trigger tantrums. This was certainly the case with us. Between 18 months and about 4 years, Tariku had alarming tantrums that would pitch him backward into some vortex of primal fear. Ten times a day, he would wail and thrash and bite and hit, inevitably at the most inconvenient times: Target, the movies, the mall, Disneyland (admittedly, I often feel the same way there). At first it was really embarrassing. Then I stopped caring what other people thought. After that it was just exhausting, and often left me hopeless and despairing at the end of the day.

We even had the police called on us. I’ll never forget the day a police officer showed up at my front door because someone had reported our license plate as a potential kidnapping, from the pony rides at Griffith Park.

Extreme problems sometimes demand extreme measures…

Sometimes, if I could catch the tantrum while the wave was just starting to roll to shore, I found I could short-circuit it. At the first flicker of trouble, I would break into a chorus of “That’s Entertainment.” And nothing, I mean nothing, will stop a child in his tracks and have him begging for you to stop quite like a time step in the produce section.

Except the big trick was, I would make up my own words and they would go something like this (everybody now, to the tune of “Oklahoma”):

I love you! I will always love you! There is nothing you can do to make me not love you! I don’t care if you bite me every day for the rest of your life, I will still love you! I don’t care if you hate me, I still love you! Oh boy you’re being a big pain right now but guess what I love you! I love you I love you I love you!

You get the idea.

I forgot about it because I haven’t needed it in so long.

Now, once in a while, when I get an, “I hate you!” I’ll respond, “I love you!” in musical theater voice.

And if I really want to annoy him, when he’s ordering me around, I’ll resort to talking in a cockney accent and calling him the “Little Lord.”

“Would the Little Lord like some ketchup with his corn dog?”

Wow, does he ever hate that! He’ll start saying “please” so fast it’ll make your head spin!

Which is all to say…

Sometimes we have to throw a wrench into the habitual, negative patterns our brains can fall into. For us, often playfulness is not just the best option, it’s the only option– unless I want to lock horns with my child and get caught in an unwinnable power struggle. Sometimes we all need to step outside our comfort zones, of our ideas of what is right and wrong and how we should all be behaving.

Sometimes you just have to sing “I love you” to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening” until there’s nothing left to do but laugh your ass off.

Pie Fight!

T snow

I smashed my iPhone and I’m up in the mountains. Gah! Email me. Don’t bother texting….

Anyway, hello from Big Bear, where it is actually cold and there is actual white stuff on the ground!

As we wound up the mountain road and the first dirty, slushy patches of snow appeared, Tariku screamed like he had won the Publisher’s Clearing House. It’s strange to me that snow is exotic to him. My childhood was so different than my son’s sunshiney LA life, where the darkest wintery days barely require a sweater.

I remember the magic of waking up in the morning and seeing the world newly white. I remember evenings in the downstairs den snuggled in front of the fire under an afghan, looking out windows frosted over with snowflake patterns of ice and listening to my favorite Burl Ives album. I remember trading in my ice skates every year for a new pair, waiting to see if the lake froze over and we’d actually be able to skate outside and not just in the indoor rink, with its watery hot chocolate.

Scott is like, who cares? Winter sucks. He just remembers getting hit in the face by snowballs and the one time in fourth grade he nearly froze off his little toe. He doesn’t have the nostalgia for seasons that I do. Then again, I have nostalgia for nearly every piece of lint that ever blew across my path.

I’m currently sitting in a café in Big Bear, drinking a decent almond milk latte across the table from my friend Fred. We just dropped our kids off at ski school. I decided to give myself a pass from skiing today and instead just hang around and write and read and caffeinate. I’m unreasonably ecstatic about this plan.

I want to share a bit about our New Years with you, because it was one of my favorites. First of all, Mr. Shriner took me out to a beautiful dinner and dancing. We had a super-fun, sorta-wild New Years Eve. I think it was a response to the midnight yoga/chanting/interpretive dance that I made him go to last year (totally serious- I did that to him and he stayed with me).

Tariku dragged me and my aching head out of bed at six the next morning, pumped to embark on our mission for the day. Tariku has been begging– begging— for a pie fight for the past three years. New Years day we decided to do it.

The three of us went to the grocery store and bought a stack of pie tins and a landfill’s worth of whipped cream bottles. Then, after searching my soul about whether I wanted to be videotaped in a showercap or get gross whipped cream in my hair, I came down decisively on the side of ruining my blow dry. Hair be damned, it was a blast! It’s so fun to to listen to Tariku’s wild laughter.

The New Year causes us to reflect on the passage of time, and I’m always painfully aware that his little boy laugh will soon go the way of his toddler babble. So it was particularly sweet. I think we’re going to make the pie fight a tradition. We followed it with Box Trolls and a spaghetti and meatballs living room picnic. It was a happy way to spend the first day of 2015.

I didn’t make a big resolution, but I do aim to enjoy my accomplishments more this year, whatever they may look like. I’m so hard on myself. It’s not that I don’t love my work– I do. I’m just uncomfortable with finishing and sending my creative babies into the cold cruel world. My therapist Judy actually used the word “grim,” which startled me. Me? Grim? The originator of the First Annual New Years Day Pie Fight?! But it’s true. I tend to underplay my accomplishments, to apologize for my success, to close one project and immediately open another without even a breath, a sip of tea, a glass of bubbly, a Mallomar…nothin’. This compulsive over-sharer didn’t even tell anyone for days that I had finished my book. I aspire to be less grim. To bust out the Mallomars. To love and respect my own work the way I hope others will.

2014 held a lot of sadness, with many troubling themes rising to the surface. It was a year that the deep institutionalized racism in our culture found a powerful place in public dialogue. The incidents that provoked this dialogue were so sad and frightening, but the outcry was heartening to me. It leads me to hope that this year and the next and the next will see progress. That my son will grow up into a world that is safer for black men. A world that is kinder to their bodies, their hearts, their human rights, their souls. I hope the same for women. I hope the same for all of us.

moms know


Wishing you lots of self-care, dancing, safety and pie. Happy New Year!

Bodies in Motion




This holiday was more stressful than usual, for no particular reason. Sure there were work deadlines and money hemorrhages and family drama and too much food and too little sleep, but there always are. So why this year did I feel so shut down? Even my latkes sucked this year, and my latkes NEVER suck. I found myself curled in a ball on the upstairs couch more often than I would have liked.

When I begin to get overwhelmed and anxious, I react by trying to control the situation. I have multiple to-do lists, color coded, on different sized note pads and post-its. I’m sure if I get to the end of the to-do list, I will find…freedom. Aaahh. Spaciousness. Wide sky. I’m convinced that if I just throw myself with enough gusto into doing doing doing, I will round a corner one day and see the finish line. I will run through the ribbon with my arms held high in a victory pose and then (and only then) will I feel at peace.

I’m not sure why I persist in this delusion, when it has never once worked.

In service of this unrealistic goal. I employ generous measures of self-denial. The first form this denial takes is neglect of my physical self– rejection of my body and its needs. I don’t eat or I mindlessly eat too much. I don’t exercise, because I don’t have time. I don’t stretch and my old back injury acts up, so I take more and more ibuprofen and muscle relaxers and “power through.” The ibuprofen upsets my stomach, so I scarf antacids by the handful. I don’t sleep well because I can’t stop running through the list in my mind.

The plan the whole time is that, when I reach this mythical finish line, I will “take better care of myself.”

Perhaps you have such a plan. Perhaps you imagine the finish line is January 1, and you can abuse yourself in a method of your choosing until then, when things will finally change, like, forever after.

Except they won’t, and you know it. When I began to face the truth– that my resolutions almost always crumbled before January 15 rolled around– I stopped making them. Now, I try to see the New Year as a useful marking of time rather than a clean slate. Because I have come to believe there is no such thing.

My body is the scene of more that one crime in this lifetime. Crimes done to me and crimes I’ve committed against myself. I have legitimate reasons for wanting to shut it off at the slightest provocation. I resent my body and its annoying needs, its troublesome memories and emotions, its alarming register of the passing years. But I have learned time and time again that it is my only way back to feeling grounded and present in the world.

I went to an exercise class on Christmas Eve (dreaded because I had played truant for so long). I went for a long walk, when I had absolutely no time to do so. I began rolling out of bed into a yoga pose or two. Slowly, I started to feel a bit less like a walking to-do list and more like a human inhabitant of this earth.

So again, I go back to the beginning. I go back to my body. Not one day a year, but every day. Each morning, I must choose to say, Hello, Body! I know you, house of all I’ve witnessed and thought and experienced in this lifetime. I see you, you have carried me this far. I feel you, and you are not half bad.