Why Write?

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My favorite place to be is in my head.

As a young girl, I soaked in the bathtub with the boom box blaring, dreaming up dance routines and doodled across my paper bag book cover until graphite designs swallowed the cardboard colored wrapping.

But it never occurred to me to try my hand at creative writing; I didn’t like to read and the physical act of writing only ever led to a callus on my middle finger.

Then one of my teachers assigned our class the task of writing an original story, forcing me to apply my healthy imagination elsewhere.

Inspiration didn’t take long.  On the bus ride home from school the same day, I was struck by images for an opening scene so fabulous in my ten year old brain that I immediately took pencil to paper and composed what I believed to be the start of a master piece.

This rush of innovation convinced me I was the next Judy Blume.  I labored over my story, submitted the completed manuscript with the exuberance of A Christmas Story’s Ralphie, and waited for my Ms. Shields to award me with accolades and an A+.

My young author fantasy collapsed within a week.  As I read through Ms. Shield’s blanket of edits, I could hear the red ink cackling, “You’re not good enough, kid.”  Already a perfectionist, I cast my new ambition aside.

Sort of.

In high school I dabbled in poetry, in business school took fiction writing and literature courses, and as an elementary school teacher, loved to teach the craft.  Each time, self doubt swallowed the artistic undercurrent.

Then I became a mommy with young children desperate for a hobby that fulfilled me in a way diapers, laundry, and sleep training never could.  I sampled dance classes but lost interest when I couldn’t remember the routine from week to week and researched community art classes but concluded my drawing skills were best left in the margin.

Nothing stuck until one snowy morning on route to preschool drop off, words stepped forward.

My youthful, creative energy plunked down in the passenger’s seat beside me.  “You don’t need fancy degrees, a library spilling with classics or outside approval to write,” she explained.  “You have heart, experience, and curiosity.  It’s time.”

Here I am, six years later writing picture books for children and essays for the grown-ups in their lives.  Why?

I write to share my truth after 25 years of secret keeping.

I write to honor the child; to validate their place in this world, capture their joy, experiences and feelings and to preserve the innocent spirit I lost too soon.

I write so Bubbe and Skootch have access to a growing collection of their mother’s thoughts and beliefs so they may learn who I am in addition to being Mom

I write to model for them what it looks like to pursue a passion.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why I do what I do.

So whenever my ego swells, I become consumed with clicks, views and audience expectations, the idea pipeline shrivels, deadlines approach, rejections mount, a critique breaks my spirit or life just gets in the way, I take a breath…

relax into my favorite place,
hone in on my heart,
open the flood gates
and write.

A Pleasant Passover

Seder table picture

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Born into a Catholic family with a Jewish surname, I should have expected that I would one day find myself leading a Passover Seder.

To date, Mac and I have hosted eight Seders, seven of which I’ve had the honor to lead. This role was bestowed upon me after my Jewish husband concluded that in light of my organized, creative, teacher-like nature, I was the right person for the job. The trade off was food prep, which he happily agreed to tackle. Not one who enjoys cooking, I acquiesced. Besides, the man makes a mean brisket.

I love a good Passover Seder.

The parallels to the Easter story coupled with the springtime symbolism and my personal affection for The Ten Commandments movie make Passover a welcomed and relatable holiday.

The Seder service creates a setting where both the newcomer and the experienced guest feel connected.

It’s a forum to discuss physical and emotional freedom, think about the responsibility one has to repair the world, question injustice, and reflect on values and relationships. The Story of Exodus and the blessings translate into modern life and are meaningful for young and old, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Lastly, the traditions are designed to keep children engaged, which make it easy to add elements of fun.

I didn’t always love a Seder.

In the beginning, I found it a tough ceremony to swallow. I felt like the token Christian; the stranger in the wrong outfit eating the matza out of order. The structure of the service confused me and the intensity associated with staying on task gave me the perfect excuse to keep quiet. I felt excluded by the deluge of Hebrew spoken by those in the know and in general, lost; drowned in a Red Sea of rigidity, pomp, and circumstance. For years, I couldn’t wait to suck down that fourth cup of wine and hightail it home.

Determined to do right by my Catholic self and our Jewish children, I set out on a mission to create an outreach friendly Seder.

I compiled a Hagaddah chock full of catchy ditties, kid friendly verses, and hands on plagues. I switched up the order of the service, made the blessings accessible in English and Hebrew, added passages about civil rights and the human condition, and offered readings that would appeal to different belief systems.

It took a few years to earn our Seder hosting chops, but eventually Mac and I found something that worked for us.

Fast forward to Passover 2014.

Walking by a local church the morning of Passover I noticed a passage carved into the steeple.

How wonderful it is

How pleasant for God’s people

To live together in harmony

Psalm 133

I thought about our Seder guests. That evening, sixteen people; Jews, Catholics, Muslims, a son of Methodist missionaries, family, old friends, and new faces would gather around our table in Pleasantville like a bona fide interfaith, intergenerational jamboree.

As suspected, it turned out to be just that.

We waited to kickoff the festivities so my Muslim neighbor could run home to say her afternoon prayers.

My father, a good ole boy and the son of Methodist missionaries who has a mezuzah affixed to his doorpost out of respect for our Jewish ancestors, joined us for his first Seder and my first holiday with him since I was a baby.

Adults and young people alike wore sunglasses to symbolize darkness, the ninth plague and enjoyed an enthusiastic food fight of marshmallow hail.

Twenty somethings and teenagers were just as jazzed as the under ten population to hunt for the Afikomen.

The widow and sister of a dear friend, a devout Irish Catholic who always attended our Seders but passed away a few years ago, recited the concluding poem together, a job historically reserved for him.

And when the Seder ended that sister, a retired high school special education teacher, mother of four and grandmother who attends daily mass, and a Passover newcomer stood up and addressed the group. She shared,

We are a society of self-absorbed immediacy. It seems that all anyone cares about today are the latest trends, the hottest stars, and themselves. It is important to pass on traditions, talk about ancestry, tell stories, and make connections to the past. Doing this creates a necessary foundation for our children. For me, the Seder represents hope and a renewed determination to keep ALL the traditions we have alive and fun.

Then she took our Hagaddah home to use as a teaching aid in her Catechism class.

Three days later, a gust of anti-Semitism blew through the dining room and knocked me off the kumbaya cloud as I read about yet another account of worldwide religious intolerance and persecution.

This time it was an article about Jewish residents in the Ukraine who were stopped outside the synagogue after Passover services by masked men, and handed a leaflet citing that anyone over the age of sixteen was required to register themselves and personal property as Jewish or face deportation.

I was not raised Jewish. I did not convert to Judaism. But as a person raising Jewish children, the institutional nature of the attempt made me sick. It made me angry. It hit home for this Mama Bear.

So to the bigots who ordered, printed, and distributed the leaflets; raspberries and middle fingers to you.

And to all those who continue to hurt others because of or in the name of religion, I invite you to climb down from your bully pulpit.

Take off the mask, put down your weapon

Grab the marshmallows, slip on the sunglasses

And join my family for a Pleasant Passover; there are sixteen people who value freedom, tradition, inclusivity, harmony, and humanity that we’d like you to meet.

Please check out “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” online in Mamalode parenting magazine!

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I am proud to share my 2nd essay feature in Mamalode parenting magazine.

I wrote, “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” about a dear friend in my community.  It was published today.

Even if you have already read the piece on Red said what?, please take a few minutes to:

  1. Click this link to Mamalode: A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend
  2. Like and/or comment at the bottom of the article
  3. Then please SHARE, TWEET, and PIN!

The more “unique views” of the essay on Mamalode’s site during the next 30 days, the more Mama-love I receive from them.

Thank you for your continued support, especially during this busy season!  Happy Holidays!

All the best,

Red

One, Lucky Granddaughter

Gram and me as a baby

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Two weeks ago, I lost my grandmother to cancer.  The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

When the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home, gathered my notebook, and made big plans to capture my grandmother’s talkative mood.

My mind raced with possibility; perhaps, as Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll or perhaps, as a member of her church’s quilting guild she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I got back to my grandmother’s bedside, she was already in a final sleep.  Weeks whittled to hours.  Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain free, and at home surrounded by loved ones.  Her last days, passing, and funeral were a fluid waltz.  Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I stretched my accordion memory file in search of tucked away treasures.  Two stepped forward; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.”  Sixteen was her forever age; the age at which she liked to see herself.

Pic of Gram sweet 16

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

More memories began to surface.  My notebook soon filled to form Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.

Definitely…

1.     Listen for understanding.  When conversing with others, don’t uh-huh, right, or yes them.  Take it all in.  Dot was everyone’s ear; mine included.

2.     Visit the sick.  My grandmother was not afraid to go into the fray.  She recognized that one’s comfort was more important than personal or situational anxiety.  The key to helping those failing feel alive, she recently told me, was to talk about old times.  Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3.     Create a warm and inviting home.  Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house.  Even as the family grew, her apartment was the place to be; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table.  A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4.     Keep an open door policy.  Dot always left an empty plate on the table.  Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends traipsed through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parm, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle.  No appointment needed.  Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them.

5.     Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest.  My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting and boy, could she work a room.  From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged.  In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology.  “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said.  It made her sad.

6.     Be a good time Charlie.  Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing.  Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

Gram in curlers

7.     Send cards.  I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark.  My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise.  Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.  Relatives can’t help but smile when they talk about Dot’s cards.

8.     Watch your television stories, but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant.  When my grandmother told Mac she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9.     Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility.  My grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties.  She loved to drive.  With a dashboard pat for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go.  As her housemate until age five, I don’t remember ever being home before supper.  But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10.   Forge ahead.  My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication.  Not once did she complain.

11.   Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever floats your boat.  My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as Homemaker.  More so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.  You name it, she did it because for her, the making of homes took a vested village.

12.    Say “I love you.”  Dot had a hard time doing this; showing love was easier.  The last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13.    Avoid self pity.  Dot was a Depression kid from a broken home who left school in the 10th grade.  These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14.    Communicate.  My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time.  “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised.  “Grudges are worthless.  Life is too short.”

15.    Keep the faith.  Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church; attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement.  She held fast to what spoke to her in this universe and at the end, wasn’t afraid to let go.

16.    Love well.  During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort.  At her funeral, it was no surprise to hear that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”  My grandmother left an imprint on the hearts of many because above all things, she valued love.

Three days before Dot’s death, The Skootch said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospice bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came; all too soon and all too suddenly it seems and I miss her.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine.  My grandmother was an exceptional lady who, during the era of her teenage crush, Frank Sinatra but long before Derek Jeter did things her way.

This way, her spirit, and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one, lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Gram and me wedding picture

The Day I Deleted Minecraft; a letter to my son

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Dear Bubbe,

I never intended to do it; really.  One second it was a quivering icon, the next it was gone.  Just. Like. Magic.

Honestly, it brought on a smile.  I’m not trying to be mean.  Chalk it up to a Mommy epiphany, a moment of clarity.  The day I deleted Minecraft, I liberated myself and you of a virtual, addictive burden.  Pressing that shaky, little X ushered you back to real life.  That made me happy.

In the beginning, I was a fan.

Compared to the other choices the video game world has to offer, I could see why you wanted to tap the piggy bank to invest in one that requires players to scavenge for resources, earn survival treasure, design landscapes, construct villages, and defend against intruders.  As a lifelong rock collector, forager of sorts, visual thinker, and creative designer it appealed to many of your natural sensibilities.

A popular topic of discussion at summer camp and later in the school cafeteria, Minecraft was also something to bond over with friends.  Game play and conversations led to art projects, dissecting handbooks, sharing song parodies, and pretend play.  It was a vehicle to stretch your imagination, apply ingenuity, problem solve, and socialize.  So like organized sports, enrichment programs, and play dates, this Mommy approved video game quickly became outsourcing I could justify.

Not only did I feel like I was doing right by your development; it kept you busy, safe, in an earshot and out of my hair all at the same time.  My afternoon was still my own and I didn’t necessarily have to entertain or engage with you all that much.

Then I began to notice screen time and giving up the screen made you cranky and angry.  You responded less to Dad and me, ignored guests, and blew off friends playing outside.  Preferred downtime was spent in the basement; alone in a Minecraft cave.

Even with the game shut off, I was living with a one note Bubbe on Enderman autopilot.  It was all you wanted to talk, draw, write, and think about.  And when The Skootch got access, twice the misery ensued.

So in an effort to find balance, we set up a schedule to earn and limit play time.

It didn’t work.

The timer chime was drowned out daily by your pleading, sometimes screaming voice, “I wasn’t done; I just found iron, I need a diamond sword, a creeper destroyed my supplies and all I have left is a raw chicken!”

It was only after the drama escalated to the point where I found myself ripping the IPad from your grip and yelling back, “Who cares; it’s not real!” that I knew we needed a big change.

All craziness combined led me to Deletion Day.

In the future, I’m not ruling out screen time completely; that would make me a hypocrite but Minecraft was sucking wind from your childhood and it needed to go away.

Proof of my decision came the morning after Deletion Day when I read an article about Steve Jobs; the man who invented the tablet on which you play.  He was brilliant for many reasons, particularly in his choice to limit his own children’s access to technology.

A few hours later, you played with months old Minecraft Legos for the first time and said, “Mom, this is fun.  I never would have known if I kept playing video games.”  I then knew we were heading in a better direction.

Your Lego comment got me thinking more about fun and parent approved outsourcing, both today and when I was your age.

Like you, I kept busy after school and like you, my mother gravitated toward outsourcing.  She didn’t have insight into child development or the value of play, I’m just pretty sure that when she came home from work, she didn’t want to see my face until dinner.

But I didn’t play video games, do gobs of after school activities, or have scheduled dates to see friends.

I was let out of the house and off the leash; in an earshot of only the person on the bike next to me and left in an unstructured and by modern standards, unsafe environment to play pickup games with neighboring kids, defend myself against obnoxious villagers, explore the nearby pond, collect crystals from a stream, build forts, and roam through the woods.

Call it my own, private Minecraft.  No IPad needed.

And it was good fun.

Listen, growing up isn’t easy but parenting isn’t simple.  You can’t always get what you want when you want it, and I can’t always do what makes my life easier.  In an effort to raise you to be a thinking, well adjusted, connected, kind, happy, independent human being I sometimes have to check myself and then love you enough to say

Enough.

Your childhood is just out of my reach, but it is not yet out of yours.  Embrace.  Enjoy.  Experience.  Take time in the real world to discover uncharted lands, dig caves, build cities, mix it up with the villagers, and have adventures.  You’ll be glad you did.

Now go.  I’ll see you at dinner.

I Love You,

Mom

Laundry Room Mishpacha; a Rosh Hashanah Tale

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After Hurricane Sandy, roughly six weeks post Rosh Hashanah 2012, we temporarily moved into my in-laws’ apartment.  The building is home to a number of observant Jewish families, my in-laws included.

Waiting in the laundry room, I noticed a grandma folding clothes while her four-ish year old twin grandchildren, a boy and girl played nearby.

“I’m going to sing a Rosh Hashanah song,” announced the light eyed little guy.

After he got a few lines into his song I said, “That’s a nice tune.”

“He’s a good singer,” Grandma replied.

“Yes.  I haven’t heard that one before.”

Right then his sister whipped her auburn curls, looked me dead in the eye and declared, “That’s because you’re not Jewish.

“Watch what you say to people!” Grandma barked.

Watch what you teach her, I thought.

I bit my lip and explained, “The Rosh Hashanah song I know is different.  It goes like this…”

I sang a few lines of my holiday ditty.  Thankfully the dryer’s buzzer went off.  I took my clothes, wished them a good day and left – fuming.

Why do I have to be Jewish to know a Rosh Hashanah song?  Why did the girl assume I was different than she?  We were in the laundry room, not synagogue and it wasn’t Shabbat.  Could she really have drawn her conclusion simply because I was dressed less conservatively than her grandmother?

It wasn’t clear.

What was clear was this little girl had been taught either directly or indirectly to identify, judge, and draw a conclusion about a person based on one’s appearance relative to the other grown-ups in her life.  As a Christian woman married to a Jewish man who takes pride in raising Jewish children, I felt offended and sad.

This week, my family will celebrate the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and new beginnings.  Whether you observe or not, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about the symbolic gestures we feel bring us closer to God.  Although seemingly benign when practiced with a similar group, the question remains;

Do these gestures create an unhealthy divide, particularly when our children form false and hurtful conclusions based on them?

When all is said and done, I personally don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about what clothes we wore, the food we ate, the holidays we observed, or how many times a day we prayed.

It is how we view and treat each other while we are here that matters.

But let’s be realistic; life is wonderfully diverse and so our lifestyles will vary and symbols sustain.  So in an effort to close the gap, let’s be mindful about consistently teaching young people that all religious and cultural perspectives are valid and deserve respect.

Grandma, you and I may have different ways of approaching our day to day living, but my hope is that we embody the same values.  With this New Year upon us, let’s show our children that when we look beyond the laundry room, we are all mishpacha.

Learning to be an Athlete

Yogi Berra or Jim Wohlford (depending upon the Google search)

Yogi Berra or Jim Wohlford (depending upon the Google search)

Summer morning CrossFit classes in my hood are notorious for crew shifts.  Vacationing teachers, students, and corporate types working summer hours show up as the morning unfolds to mix it up with us daytime regulars.

One recent hump day, I walked into our gym to find a swarm of angels.

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Strong, confident, tenacious, fit; nothing stops these ladies.  Not age.  Not kids.  Not career.  Not cancer.  Nothing.  When the tough get going, they step on the gas and when the weights get heavy; these gals find a way to lift them.  They consistently lap my veteran CrossFit ass, leaving me to wallow in their well-sculpted sweat angels.

Sweat angel

They are women who, when asked what they did they did before CrossFit rattle off a lifetime of athletic achievements: college soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and volleyball, gymnast, kayaker, marathoner and trainer.

I adore the Angels.

A salt of the earth group, they play musical chairs in a rainstorm, foster and rescue neglected animals, offer unsolicited hugs for all sorts and no particular reason, and embrace known entities as well as new faces with respect, genuine interest and open arms.

But when a gaggle of them showed for class the same hour, my hour; I felt compelled to back squat with the dust bunnies.

A gritty, tough cookie born with athletic tendencies, perhaps; but an athlete I am not.  I stopped wearing any semblance of that hat just shy of thirteen when I traded it and organized sports in for a drama beret, a couple of mock trial caps, and my model student beanie.

It wasn’t until drinking the CrossFit Kool-Aid two years ago that the notion of being fit enough in my lifetime to be called athlete crossed my mind.  However, after consistent discomfort, fortunately and often surprisingly I am thrilled to share that I’m able to tackle most tests thrown my way.

Still, anytime Coach Herc or BE calls out, “Look at these great athletes getting it done!” I can’t help but half smirk, cock my head, and scan the room because I can’t imagine they are talking about me.

Why?

Because fitness level isn’t enough.  The Angels know this.  What they own is the ability to stay mentally tough when presented with a physical challenge; a nurtured skill from a young age.

This combination is new for me and I have some catching up to do.

But I’m learning.  Learning to…

Relax

Coach BE used to stare me down regularly and say, “Relax Red, relax.”  He was right.  Excess tension wastes energy and I need all the fuel I can get.  Now this two syllable mantra helps me scale hills, get under a clean, and go back for more burpees.

Stay in the moment

During a workout, the same coach stood next to me and said nothing.  His presence, a quiet push, encouraged the kettlebell to keep swinging and me to focus only on that task.  With life darting about, staying in the zone is no easy feat but doing it transforms the unbearable into manageable.

Make a plan, set a pace

My husband, a fellow CrossFitter laughs when I strategize the scheduled workout a day in advance and classmates love to comment on my marked up whiteboard.  Mock they may, but a plan offsets anxiety and marginalizes intimidation.  Pace preserves gas and rationalizes the agony.

Dig and push

When the dark side creeps in and the Angels are on the verge of breaking, they dig deep, shift gears, and turn up the performance. Experience tells them what their bodies can handle and they go for it.  It’s an admirable sight.

Keep it real

Beating myself up and inflicting unnecessary pressure to perform or eat a certain way drains the psyche and limits my ability to grow.  Witnessing Coach Herc’s tabletop foil wrapper glacier as evidence of a devoured bag of Hershey kisses and watching him take time to heal an injury are wonderful reminders that life is a balance and athletes are human.

As the summer winds down and the Angels rejoin their respective crews, I’ll once again be left alone with my WOD notebook, aspirations, and will to learn.  But thanks to these ladies and our coaches, the next time someone yells something about a group of athletes; I’ll be peeling my ears for that ringing bell and peeking over my shoulder,

because this angel is sprouting wings.

Crossfit barbell jump