Waving Goodbye

helen and me

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My friend Helen died a few hours ago. Her daughter just called me sobbing as I was headed back into the house from my barre class.

Helen was our next door neighbor at the old house. She was there waving from her porch the day we moved into our beloved little home on tree-lined Mt Royal Drive. She had lived there for nearly sixty years.

Helen was quiet and always accommodating to a fault, but once you got to know her she was wisecracking and fiery. She remembered everyone on birthdays and holidays. The kids on the street called her Grandma Helen. She loved Tariku and never once looked askance at him, even at his most challenging moments.

Helen was ninety-one. For the past few years she’s been in an assisted living facility and I would sometimes go there to hang out and hear her stories. She once showed me a photograph of herself perched on the back of her husband’s motorcycle when they were first married. She raised four kids and then decided to go back to work as a cook in the cafeteria of one of of the local public schools. This was back when they actually cooked fresh, healthy food on the premises. She showed me pictures of huge pressure cookers filled with rice, stainless steel counters lined with trays of golden turkeys. She was so proud of that job.

On the weekends, she and her husband (now long-gone) used to go dancing. She loved to dance.

I often talked to Helen about my worries. She would laugh and say, “You sound just like I did.”

The hardest thing for me wasn’t coming to terms with the fact that Helen was going to die. She was eighty-two when I first met her, so it’s not like it was a surprise. But I was devastated when my witty friend began to fade mentally. It deeply saddened me that she seemed frightened and confused near the end. A few months ago, I went and visited her and we just held hands and cried.

I called the family into the living room this morning and told them the news. Tariku was so uncomfortable. He wouldn’t sit down. He rolled his eyes and fidgeted and said some really weird stuff (about graves and corpses). I suggested some appropriate things we can say to people who are grieving and then I kissed him and let him go out with his Auntie Jo for the day. I did my best not to shame him or correct him too harshly.

He is incredibly uncomfortable around loss, which makes sense, given the history of loss in his short life. He also tends to freak out when I express strong emotion. I think it makes him feel unsafe. This is the first major death in our lives that he’s really old enough to grasp. I’m going to try to give him a lot of space to have his own reaction to this, rather than the one I deem suitable.

My dear friend Claire Bidwell Smith is a writer and grief counselor and we talk often about death. We talk about how we might want to die, which is, of course, more a conversation about how we want to live. We talk about what might happen to us afterward. We talk about how to approach the topic of death with our children. I’m so glad I recently read an advance copy of Claire’s new memoir After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go (you can pre-order). It gave me a vocabulary for approaching the topic of death with Tariku. It made me realize that I don’t have to have all the answers. Or even any of the answers. I just have to have a sense of what it means to lead a meaningful life.

In school, T learns that when people die, they go to be with Jesus in heaven. It’s not exactly my personal belief, but it doesn’t have to be. I tell him that it might be true, but no one really knows. That the Beatles may have said it best: And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make. Helen gave so much love and compassion– to her family, to her neighbors, to everyone around her. And that’s what remains. That and a really cool black and white photograph of her on a motorcycle wearing a thick ponytail and pedal pushers, her arms wrapped around her husband’s leather jacket, a wide, sweet smile on her face.

I will miss you, Helen. I will always miss that time in my life, when you stood waving hello from your porch and Scott and I first walked through our doorway, our life together still so hopeful and new.

Here is another door. You are walking through it. I am waving goodbye.

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Pie Fight!

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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

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

Holding 2015

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Today, on an unusually chilly L.A. morning, I went to my Pop Physique class and happened to throw on a shirt I haven’t worn since I got back from Africa. As I was lift-hold-squeeze-lift-hold-squeezing, I could still smell Ethiopia on my shirt. Tears pricked my eyes as I remembered the rocket fuel coffee, the delicious berbere, the van like a rickety roller coaster, the strong hugs of the women I met, the tears of this little sweetheart at the orphanage.

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It was a painful dissonance– the immense privilege of my lift-hold-squeeze morning (that I had grumbled and complained about) and the smell of the green hills of Ethiopia, where I had seen so much hardship. Sometimes this dissonance and the guilt that comes on its heels can make me want to turn away– just recycle once in a while and throw 25 extra bucks in the envelope with my museum membership and call it a day. I barely even have to look at messy things like extreme poverty, if I keep my eyes trained straight ahead. It hurts to look around.

Look around anyway.

If you’re anything like Scott and me, you’re scrambling tonight to finish up your year-end donations. Still one day left! Help One Now is the amazing organization I went to Ethiopia with. They’re raising funds fight now for Ferrier Village in Haiti. Join Scott and me in buying a brick (or 2 or 10!) for this amazing community, dedicated to rescuing vulnerable children from human trafficking.

Tonight, I aspire to hold (if not lift and squeeze…) my family, my friends, the kids of Ferrier, you… on into a bright 2015.

See you there!

TBT: The Cards of Christmas Past

Hope you’re having a beautiful day!

For your holiday enjoyment, here’s a recap of the past six Shriner Christmas cards…

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Wholesome Holiday Fun!

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Wishing you much love and laughter, from our family to yours.

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