Hello, I Must Be Going

On Sunday, March 25, 2007 at 7:30pm PDT, I become friends with Nic Anderson. Nic and I are, in fact, already friends. We've been working together for more than three years. But this is the moment when our friendship becomes real in the eyes of Facebook. This is the moment my timeline begins. This is the moment I fall into the rabbit hole.

I don't realize I'm falling at first. I think I'm merely doing research for work. I think I'm merely preparing for the brainstorming meeting Nic is holding the next day, the meeting where we'll be discussing Facebook, our company's new client. 

I don't realize I'm falling at first because my first impression leaves me unimpressed. "Why would anyone share their private thoughts publicly?" I ask Nic the next day. "Why would you want to poke someone?" "Why is this relevant to anyone other than college students?"

I don't realize I'm falling when all throughout that next year and a half, I log in every few days and start to fill in the sentence "Julie Felner is_____." 

Julie Felner is sleepy but happy.

Julie Felner is in Anaheim today.

Julie Felner is not in Anaheim today!

Julie Felner is searching for the perfect cracker.

Julie Felner is searching for the perfect words.

Julie Felner is annoyed that she is the same person she was at age 6. Has there been no progress?

Julie Felner is wondering if other people use their status updates as a replacement for therapy.

By Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 9:51pm PST, when I reconnect with my old college friend Nina, I seem to understand that the rabbit hole is now my home. I am welcoming suspicious visitors like Nina, explaining my theory of the 5 stages of Facebook:

1) Skepticism—where you say, "This thing is stupid. I don't get it."
2) Seduction—where your interest is piqued and you find yourself drawn in almost despite yourself
3) Silliness—where you start doing absurd things that an adult should be embarrassed by, like super-poking people and taking likeness polls and writing bad movie trivia quizzes
4) Saturation—where you start to feel a hangover from all the silliness and contemplate going cold turkey
5) Status quo—where it just becomes another normal, daily communication ritual, like checking email or calling someone on the phone.

"Give in to it," I tell her. "There's more good than bad." (I really did believe that then, just like Mark Zuckerberg really does believe that now.) 

Over the next 8 years, I will build a whole universe within the rabbit hole. I will write the story of my life on its walls. I will forge new tribes and find old ones I had lost. Sometimes I will smile when friends say they're leaving, knowing they'll be back. Every now and then, I will encounter a holdout—someone who's never even peeked inside, much less fallen through—and I will ask myself, "Do they know something I don't know...or do I know something they don't know?" I will only spend a few seconds pondering this question before assuring myself that it's the latter.

All of this changes on Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 8:18am PST. This is when I realize that the air in the rabbit hole has turned acrid. This is the moment I begin to climb out. I don't announce a permanent departure. (I learned my lesson from those friends who sheepishly crawled back in after defiantly decamping to Google Plus.) I just let people know I'm logging off "for a little while." 

But that little while turns into a few days. And then a few weeks. And then a few months. Slowly, my friendships start to follow an actual rhythm and not an algorithm. People come in and out of my consciousness based on my own mind, memory, and associations. I remember what it's like to actually miss people. It feels as if my relationships have come off life support. Some are able to breathe, at last, on their own; others are slowly dying—because perhaps they were not meant to survive in the first place.

And now, it's been exactly a year.

So, tonight I said goodbye to the rabbit hole for good. I didn't tell people I was leaving. Because that's the thing about the rabbit hole. You can't actually leave if you stop to say goodbye. 

Seeing the light

Well, the last night of 2016 was as fitful as the previous 54 nights. It's been hard to come by a good night's sleep since You-Know-Who rose to power. But as Amy and I crawled into bed just before the stroke of 11, I thought last night might be a contender. We'd had an indulgent night in — curled up on the couch with a bowl of caramel popcorn in hand, Beginners on Netflix, and the house to ourselves. 

Then came the fireworks. Not the official ones that likely went off at midnight, somewhere over the Bay and unbeknownst to us. No, these were the amateur pyrotechnics set off by our neighbors, which in turn set off the dog and cut short what had been a promising slumber. Around 3:30 or so, the dog stopped panting and started pacing. "I think he needs to pee," murmured Amy in a noncommittal kind of way.

And that's how I found myself staring at a magnificent sky in the wee hours of 2017. As the dog trotted around the backyard, I looked up to find a quality of light that I couldn't quite place. It wasn't exactly moonlight — at least I didn't see any moon — but it wasn't receding darkness nor emerging daylight either. It was just a cool, electric blue-black sky, punctuated by a handful of stars, with a conveyer belt of white clouds moving slowly underneath it. My mourning about the lost night swiftly dissipated in the perfection of this small, simple, pure moment of awe. I could feel a sense of hope and connection. A sense of peace and of place.

I suspect such moments will be important in the days ahead — to remain wide-eyed even while clear-eyed, to find awe despite the awful.

A manifesto for the morning of November 9

No matter what happens tomorrow, this is a reminder that it’s the start and not the end. On Wednesday, we begin the hard work of making our country—and our world—into the one we desire and deserve.

This is a reminder to myself to choose: 

Complexity over certainty. 
Curiosity over complacency. 
Empathy over judgment. 
Action over apathy. 
Accountability over anger. 

This is a reminder to myself to act with integrity and intention:

First, do no harm.
And when you do harm, seek to understand and undo it.
Keep peeling back the layers of your own privilege.
Share your experience, but don't mistake it for truth.
Beware of complacency.
Look for signals in the silence, not just in the noise.
Create more room in the room.
Remember: Resistance is fruitful.
Yet also ask: Do I really need to hold on to this? (That goes for anger and opinions.)
Be willing to own up to your mistakes. And be willing to make them in the first place.
Be willing to accept the flaws in your heroes—and the goodness in your foes.
If you don’t speak someone’s language, try to learn it.
Even if a story seems outrageous, try to understand the outrage that informed it.
Find the common ground on higher ground.
Amplify the good.
Be long on compassion and short on contempt.
Be willing to question everything.
Be willing to risk everything.
And with all due respect to Audre, use every tool you've got.

Reading, and weeping

Many years ago, I went through a well-known Jewish rite of passage: my first anxiety attack.

I was two months shy of my sixth birthday, a few weeks away from the start of first grade. The object of my anguished obsession? An all-powerful but elusive form of magic called reading. I understood the concept of it. I understood the importance of it. I liked reading when it was done to me—I just didn't know how to do it to myself. And I was terrified I never would.

My mother, perhaps hoping to quiet her own silent fears, decided to schedule a meeting with my soon-to-be first grade teacher. My memory of that August 1975 get-together is vivid: Mrs. Johnson—an ebullient twenty-something woman who had only recently become Mrs. Johnson—perches gently on one of those kid-size plastic chairs, takes my hand, looks me in the eye, and as angelic waves of white light bounce off her radiant reddish hair, she promises me that by the end of first grade, I will indeed be reading. She says she will work with me every day, and that on one of those days a switch will just turn on. It will all come into focus.

And it did—just like she promised. By the end of first grade, I wasn’t sure which I loved more: reading or Mrs. Johnson. Years later, when I made my living as a copy editor—holding forth on the difference between its and it’s, proudly touting the correct spelling of ophthalmologist, curling up with my Chicago Manual of Style at night—I looked back on my first anxiety attack and laughed. My greatest fear had become my greatest strength.

And then years after that, when my own daughter was diagnosed as dyslexic, I laughed again, but in a different way. My greatest strength had become my Achilles heel.

When the interim learning specialist first called us in at the end of kindergarten to discuss some test results, Amy and I were a bit blindsided. Now, of course, I can look back and see the signs that marked my daughter as different from her peers—in the same way that my mother, when I first came out to her, went back and looked, as if for the first time, at that class picture in which the other girls sat in their neatly pressed dresses while I sat in my Timberlands and jeans, a New York Knicks jersey layered over my long-sleeve denim shirt. 

"She's just a late bloomer," I said. "I didn't learn to read until the middle of first grade. I'm sure it will be like that for her too." The learning specialist—who unbeknownst to us was something of a maverick at our daughter's progressive school, insisting on testing kindergartners who showed no signs of reading, much to the chagrin of the teachers, who didn't believe in labels—looked me in the eye, with a certainty not unlike Mrs. Johnson's, and said, "Listen, my son is dyslexic. I know the signs. The light switch is not going to just turn on." 

I don't really remember the rest of what she said. I just remember an entirely new vocabulary being thrown at me—Slingerland, Lindamood-Bell, decoding, auditory processing, phonemic awareness. She talked about our daughter needing scaffolding—and all I could imagine was our sweet, tiny six-year-old encased in metal. 

She talked with a deep sense of urgency—as if her life, our lives, our daughter's life depended on what she was saying. I learned later that her own son had endured years of torment in school before being diagnosed. She wanted to ensure that no child on her watch had to suffer the same way. "Trust me, I am not being alarmist," she said. "I am doing you a favor flagging it this early."

She was right, of course. But all she got from me in that moment was disbelief and resentment, a grudging agreement to "look into it." I left all the arrangements—the further testing, the tutoring—to Amy to figure out. I still believed that my daughter was just like me, simply a late bloomer. I still believed that she would soon find comfort in books as I had—even though she regarded trips to the library as one might approach a haunted house, the overeager ogre-like librarians coming at her with aggressive questions about what she liked to read. "Please don't make me go back there," she said, crying, after one such trip to our local branch. My heart broke. For both of us.

As she progressed through first grade, not only did the switch not turn on, a light that had been glowing inside her all throughout preschool slowly started to fade. She couldn't sleep. She dreaded going to school, dreaded sitting on the classroom couch in her reading group of one, dreaded the spelling test every Friday that sent her off into the weekend stripped of what little self-confidence she had managed to muster throughout the week. Her wonderful progressive school—with its kind students and gentle teachers—was slowly destroying her.

It was looking like she'd be held back, though no one was at all sure that simply repeating the same material would make any difference the next year. In desperation, we sent her to summer school that July. The summer program was at a place called Charles Armstrong School, a haven designed for bright children with dyslexia, located 30 miles from our house. As we dropped her off on Day 1, we fully expected her to arrive home in tears. Instead, she returned a few hours later with a bounce in her step we hadn't seen in two years.

By Day 3, she was saying she finally understood what school was supposed to be like. She begged us to let her go there in the fall. At first, we wrote off the idea as impossible. She was already enrolled in her old school. This new school was an hour's drive in morning traffic. And sending her there meant finally acknowledging the truth—that she wasn't just a late bloomer but an entirely different species of flower. It meant giving up our fantasies about who she was, our predetermined dreams of who she might become, and plunging into the deep, dark abyss of an unfamiliar present and an uncharted future.

Amy made it happen. (She carried so much of the weight in those days.) She just decided, and I simply found the courage to follow her lead. 

The first years were not easy. Her second grade teacher still has a note from a particularly grim day in which our daughter asked her, "Do dyslexic people ever learn to read?" Remediation is as hard as it sounds, and as boring. Drill after drill to make you painfully aware of those phonemes. But for the first time, she was surrounded by students who were all like her. Her special school made her feel normal.

The light switch flickered and flickered and flickered for years—until it finally turned on in fifth grade. By then, she was reading tentatively. By seventh grade, she was reading voraciously. Dyslexia doesn't go away, but it does loosen its grip, change its shape. Years of listening to audiobooks had given her an enormous vocabulary, which she used strategically to make up for her still-shaky decoding—in much the same way that I type masterfully with two fingers. And while certain neural pathways may not light up as quickly for her, she has forged other paths absent in other brains—sees patterns others miss, puts together pieces others don't think to combine. She's become a top student, and a gifted writer. None of it comes easy. None of it ever will.

And in a few days, she will graduate from eighth grade at Armstrong—leaving much of the scaffolding behind to test herself in the high intensity of a high school filled with students whose switches turned on early and easily. In a few days, she will take the stage to address her class with a graduation speech in which she talks about her fears—and why she's not so afraid of them anymore. And I know that as she stands up there reading that speech, I will be weeping—at the thought of how far she's come, at the thought of the uncharted future I'm not so afraid of anymore. 


Here lie the bodies of blog posts half-written and unwritten. Some died in a drafts folder—killed by fear, perfectionism, and the kinds of comparisons that therapists warn you not to make. Some were crushed by the weight of expectation (perceived and real). Some spent but a short time on earth—as fleeting moments of inspiration found on Bernal Hill or sticky thoughts attempting the seduction of a brain attempting to meditate or one-liners quickly used and exhausted in a conversation over dinner. Some are still trapped in the long passageway between narcissism and insight. Some never existed but insist they might have, if only the nature of time had been different.

May they rest in peace. All of them. 

May acknowledging their existence (or lack thereof) make room for blog posts to come.

Continuity be damned.

Wishes and whispers

Sometimes the whole course of your life is forever altered by a random moment in which you offhandedly make a wish.

For me, that moment came sometime in late 1999, when I walked by the desk of a colleague and happened to glance at her computer and see her browser open to a website that caught my eye. The homepage featured a row of groovy shoes (plus one pair of bare feet) and described a company where an unusual menagerie of people—including "an ex-lawyer and a poet"—helped companies solve their biggest problems. 

I felt simultaneously intrigued, inspired, intimidated, and bemused. I didn't fully understand what this company—Stone Yamashita Partners—did or even was. But I had this strange feeling that perhaps someone like me (a Ms. Magazine editor turned web content strategist) might fit in alongside the ex-lawyer and the poet. And a thought bubbled up in my brain: "I hope that's the next company I work for." 

I didn't think much more about it. But the wish went out into the universe and quietly got to work. 

And one day in 2003, I got a call from that poet, whose name was Lisa. A former colleague of mine, now a colleague of hers, had given her my name. "Are you available to do some freelance editing?"

Over time, more assignments followed. And unlike the first one, each new assignment required me to stretch beyond the bounds of my liberal arts education and far outside anything I'd done in the first two chapters of my career. I went from editor to experience designer, content strategist to C-suite consigliere. Every time a new hat finally started to fit, another one was tossed in my direction. It was exhilarating—and terrifying. But whenever I got stuck or scared, there was always someone there to help me find the will and teach me the way. Until, eventually, I became the one teaching the way—to a new set of people similarly intrigued and bemused by the company, now known as SYPartners.

My daughter was 6 months old when I first answered that call. Today, she's 13. She has never known me to work anywhere else. And, frankly, over the years it's become hard for me to discern where SYP ends and I begin. 

And then one day, just over a year ago, I realized I needed to figure out the answer to the question of where I begin. I needed to see if I had dreams, ideas, an identity, and a voice beyond and outside SYP.

The person who made me realize all this was Oprah. When I tell people that, they usually wait a few beats—to see if there's a punchline. There isn't. The only funny part of the story is that my own colleagues had actually helped Oprah engineer this particular epiphany. They had been working with Oprah and her team for months to design an ambitious two-day crash course in self-actualization called The Life You Want Weekend. The plan was for Oprah—along with a hand-picked set of her favorite inspirational speakers—to gather with tens of thousands of her devotees in stadiums around the country and help them find their purpose in life. When I was invited to join the SYP team at the event in San Jose, I assumed I would attend as observer not participant. But about an hour into the whole thing, I stopped taking notes to send back to our project manager and started to simply take note of what was happening inside my own head. And as I listened to Oprah talk about the whispers—the subtle, almost subconscious voice inside telling us what we need to do with our lives—I looked over at my boss, Susan, and I tried with all my might to stifle the whisper that was bubbling up inside me, the one calmly saying, "It's time to leave." 

It's a strange feeling when your gut is two steps ahead of your head and your heart.

It's taken me this whole year—and especially these last four months—to get all three aligned. When I first told Susan about the whisper and she suggested this sabbatical, we both knew that my leaving was a strong possibility. But it wasn't inevitable—not by a long shot. And I've spent much of these last four months continuing to resist the whisper, looking for a path back into SYP that felt right.

The last month in particular was full of much soul-searching—a private process I wasn't ready to process publicly here. But as the sands of my sabbatical started to drain, I finally had to admit to myself that to go back to SYP, right now, would be like re-reading the last chapter of a book I deeply love and desperately don't want to end.

The whisper was right. It is indeed time to leave.

And that's what I did today. My sabbatical is officially over. And so is my time at SYP. (At least for now.)

I wish I had a perfect story for people who ask me what I'm going to do next. The truth is, I'm still figuring that part out.

I've put a few new wishes out into the universe. The next whispers are almost audible—not quite yet. But I'm listening. And ready.

Unwritten Rules

Do not write anything that's not totally true.

Do not write anything that's totally true, but pretty boring for anyone other than your mother.

Do not write anything that's totally true for you but will result in your mother's need to "correct the record" on your Facebook wall.

Do not write anything that will make your daughter hate you.

Do not write, especially, about any moment in which your daughter may or may not have said, "I hate you."

Do not write about the things your daughter asked you not to write about after you told her the things you might write about when she asked you why you never write about her anymore.

Do not write about your daughter’s friends (especially you-know-who).

Do not write about any boys your daughter may or may not know, especially the boy whom everyone she knows on Instagram seems to think is her boyfriend, though you are not allowed to call him that, especially when you text his mother, which you are not allowed to do.

Do not write about any high schools your daughter may want to attend next year.

Do not write about any teachers at any high schools your daughter may want to attend next year or any teachers at any high schools your daughter has no intention of attending next year in case they are friends with teachers at high schools your daughter may want to attend next year.

Do not write about that mother on the tour and what she said to you. Why does it still bother you? Just let it go.

Do not write about how you were the only parent who seemed amused by that nice principal's name (“Principal Payne! Get it?”) unless you can find a way to weave it into a story about that lovely surgeon who once operated on your mother's neck, Dr. Hatchett.

You may write in Starbucks, but not about Starbucks.

Do not write about famous people you may or may not have had dinner with recently, even if it rocked your world. Which it did.

Do not write about Jesus, even if he is all right with you. Especially if he is all right with you.

Do not write about Israel.

Do not write about AirBnB.

Do not write about the neighbors. It's all good now. Don't mess it up.

Do not write about the real estate agent who looks like Rod Stewart. You may need his help one day.

Do not write about your tortured relationship to Capitalism. Or your tortured relationship to Socialism. Or your tortured relationship to friends or presidential candidates who are Capitalists or Socialists.

Do not write about the changing face of San Francisco. 

Do not write about that Mark Zuckerberg sighting when you went to have lunch with your friend who works at Facebook. 

In fact, do not write anything about that lunch at Facebook, in case it violates the NDA you signed in order to have lunch with your friend at Facebook.

In fact, do not write anything that might violate any other NDA you may or may not have signed this month.

Do not write about the book idea. Or the other book idea.

Do not write about how you got caught borrowing a pair of Amy’s underwear, even though the two of you have an explicit agreement not to share underwear because even lesbian couples need to have at least one thing they do not share.

Do not write about other people's feelings.

Do not write about other people’s children.

Do not write about the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah of anyone else's child, unless it is simply to pay that child a compliment. (Eli: Dude! I came. Esau. You conquered! Roma: Still thinking about your drash.)

Do not write about the startup you’re meeting with next week.

Do not write about the startup you’re thinking of starting next week.

You may write about the dog, but do not write about that cute-mortified look he gets when you see him pooping. You're just projecting.

Do not write about anything that happens in your bathroom. (Unless it was in the shower.)

Do not write about anything that happens in your bedroom. (Unless it was in a dream.)

Do not write about your last trip to the gynecologist, even if it's kind of a funny story.

Speaking of funny stories, do not write about that time your brother asked you for a divorce, since he now claims it never happened and he was only joking, even if you know that it did and he wasn't.

In fact, best to not write about any family member who might take issue with any issue you might have with them.

Do not write about problems unless you can offer solutions.

Do not write about a moment if writing about the moment causes you to miss the moment.

Do not write to avoid doing your to-do's.

Do not write about your to-do's.

Do not write about writing.

Write what you know.

Write every day.

50 Shades of Green

When you work somewhere for more than a decade, as I have at SYPartners, you start to wonder what life is like at the other places where other people work. When I first started this sabbatical, I told myself I'd spend some time investigating other people's working lives, and now, halfway in, I've broken bread and talked shop with more than 30 people (and collected intelligence about a few dozen more). 

And if there is one observation that rises above all else, it's this: The grass isn't actually greener anywhere—it's simply a different shade of green everywhere. Each person is juggling his or her own set of tradeoffs and rewards. In some places, an exceptional who makes up for a ho-hum what. In other places, the why justifies all. An ambiguous how can be tolerated if the what makes you go wow. And a cozy where can mitigate a mostly missing why.

I've talked with people working where others would kill to work—which provides some comfort when they're killing themselves to do it. I've talked with people at startups on the verge of breaking through—the sense that they're just two weeks away from good fortune helping to lessen the fear that they're just two weeks away from failure. I've talked to people who've carved out an enviable niche of freedom and flexibility in a freelance life—even if every day, they're hustling to preserve it.

I've talked to retirees loving being lazy yet itching to feel a bit more productive, and midlife workers enjoying the peak of their professional prowess while daydreaming about someday getting a break. I've talked to people doing soulful work for next to nothing and those doing soul-sucking work for a pretty penny—both reassuring themselves that the end must justify the means.

I've lived long enough to know that you can't have it all—at least not all at once. I'm sure there are exceptions who prove the rule, just as I know there are plenty of people who deserve plenty more than they have. But I am beginning to wonder, after all these conversations, whether my goal should simply be to have the right things in the right moment. I'm trying to figure out what the right things are for this moment. And when I do, I'll know if I'm standing on the right patch of grass.


A Flash of Lightness

I am not the kind of person whom people would describe as light-hearted. Big-hearted? Yes. Funny? Yes. Light-hearted? No. Just ask the various family members, friends, teachers, colleagues, and taxi drivers who have tried in the past to gently suggest that I "lighten up" only to find the conversation suddenly veer off a cliff. 

This lightness people talk about has always seemed mysterious and inaccessible, and I am continually bemused by the suggestion that you can just slip into a lighter state of being as casually as you might pull on pajamas. When they say "lighten up," they might as well be saying "You would be so great if you were simply someone completely different."

But something funny has been happening on this sabbatical. There have been these moments—fleeting but distinct and discernible—where I have finally, for the first time in a lifetime of heaviness, felt light. The weight on my shoulders that usually takes form as a tightness in my chest suddenly clears away, and I am able to simply be. These are moments free of expectation, regret, worry, longing, fatigue, fear, doubt, indecision. And they are blissful.

The first time I felt it was during my first surf lesson and then again during the second one. I thought maybe it was only possible for me to feel that way in the ocean, which led to a lot of scheming about how I might stay permanently embedded there. But this weekend, it happened again—and the catalyst was soil not the sea.

We were visiting Amy's friend Jodi at her new house, where she had inherited a garden filled with edible delights—several varieties of arugula, a pomegranate tree (two actually), an apple tree, a lemon tree, bunches of chard, tiny Mexican gherkins that look like miniature watermelons. And a big raised bed filled with rich soil and fibrous stems that Jodi seemed confident were attached to potatoes. She dug up a few gold and purple ones to show me and then asked if I'd like to do the digging. We continued to talk for a while, and all that while, I was up to my elbows in the soil, rooting around for tuberous treasures. Without thinking, I managed to find about 50 small potatoes. Small potatoes, but a big deal—because when we finally packed up to leave, I noticed a vast, delicious emptiness inside of me. In place of my lungs, there was a cathedral—airy and magnificent, soaring and soulful. 

It felt so good I hesitated to wash my hands, to rinse away the magical dirt and invite the layers of worry to return. I held on to the lightness for as long as I could, but it slipped away just as we pulled up outside our house, as thoughts of what to make for dinner—mashed potatoes?!—invaded.

Now, I want to be a potato farmer or a creature of the sea. But barring that, I am on the lookout for my next opportunity to lighten up. 

That and This

When my oldest niece was little, her most precious belonging was a bear-headed, blanket-bodied stuffie named "Ça." The bear had come by his name accidentally one day when my niece, in the care of her grandmother, Mémé, was desperately gesturing for something she wanted but couldn't name, couldn't reach. My sister-in-law's mother tried to locate the source of her granddaughter's desperate longing. Going through trial and error, speaking in her usual blend of English and French, Mémé finally spotted the bear blanket across the room. "Ça?" she said. "You want ça?" And she brought the item over to my niece, who held it tightly and cooed, "Ça. Ça." The thing that was out of reach—That—was now happily in hand.

When my daughter was born, she received her very own Ça as a gift from my sister-in-law. This Ça was an identical cousin, except for the name embroidered on his satin heart. While you can’t really predetermine your child’s transitional object—I think they choose each other just as wands and wizards do—it wasn't long before the name Ça was firmly imprinted on my daughter's heart as well. He was a constant presence in our lives—shepherding our little family through every beginning and every ending and every rough patch in between. 

That is, until one fateful night in Paris when my daughter was eight. (I'm not making this up.) 

We were there with my family, celebrating my father's 75th birthday—a whirlwind tour of first London and then Paris. Other than a few awkward moments when my father's Inspector Clouseau-ish attempts at French got us testy looks, it really was a lovely trip. 

Ça did not stand atop the Eiffel Tower or travel up the side of the Pompidou. He did not wander the Marais with us. Instead, he watched over our hotel room, where every morning I would carefully remove him from my daughter's rollaway bed and place him on a dresser. A few weeks before we left, my friend Camille had shared the story of how, when she was a young college student, she traveled to Italy and brought her beloved stuffie with her, only to have it caught up in the sheets of her hotel bed and carted off to the laundry room, never to be seen again. The story haunted me.

It's worth noting that I'm a relatively cautious mother, a protective mother—a mother who, even now, can't stop cutting fruit into smaller pieces than required, despite the fact that my daughter is 13 and very skilled at chewing her food. But on the last full day of our trip, when we were rushing to leave the hotel in order to soak in as much of Paris as we could, I looked back and saw Ça lying in the bed instead of on the dresser and decided to simply close the door behind me. You worry too much, I told myself.

You can see where this is going, right?

Yes, that was the last time we saw Ça. Later that night, when we returned to the hotel, I was Liam Neeson in a stuffie version of Taken. I pleaded with the man at the front desk to let me go down to the laundry room—fully prepared to spend my last night in Paris tangled up in piles of dirty sheets. "I'm sorry," he told me, with a mixture of pity and disdain. "We don't have a laundry room. We send our laundry out to a central facility for all the major hotels." I started to cry. I reached for his computer, searching for the website of the company where Ça originated. I showed him a picture. I explained about the name sewn on the heart. He told me he would print the picture and give it to the housekeeping staff. Maybe they had seen something, he said...weakly. Not having anything more to offer, he handed me his business card and said goodnight. 

I returned to the hotel room, shell-shocked. Amy, always better in these situations, shot me a look that said, "You need to mother up right now." So, I forced a smile and explained that Ça was temporarily missing. Somehow my daughter managed to sleep through the night. I was not so lucky. I tossed and turned, replaying the fateful decision at the door over and over. Unpacking it, undoing it. It felt as if I had not only lost my child's most precious belonging but also, in a way, a piece of her childhood itself.

The next morning was Easter, and I half-hoped for a miracle, a resurrection—a bellhop running after the taxi just as we started to leave—"We found him, Madam! We found him!" But there was no bellhop. No discovery. Just a quiet rain.

One of my daughter's greatest strengths is her tenacity. She has always seemed stronger than me—even when she was inside of me. I did not have the easiest of pregnancies. There were a number of false scares that sent us to the ER. But during every single one of these episodes, the refrain from the doctors and nurses was always the same: "The baby looks great. She's very, very strong."

She coped with the loss of Ça a lot better than I did. While I spent the days and weeks after we got back emailing the hotel in vain, fantasizing about flying back to Paris to launch a bear hunt, and contemplating a children's book about the lost stuffies of Paris's central laundry, my daughter simply moved from Ça to Ci.

Ci was our backup bear. A twin sister to Ça. She had been liked, if not loved. Though she looked like Ça in every way, she lacked one crucial physical feature: a near-imperceptible indentation in the part of the fabric where the bear head met the blanket body. Whether Ça had been born with this mark or it had formed over time from a combination of my daughter's tight grip and loving caress, I wasn't sure. I just knew that Ci, lacking the indentation, was forever doomed to be the understudy—her most important role was to stand in for her brother on laundry day. 

But the night we got back from Paris, Ci got to work. And she worked hard from that evening forth, doing her brother proud and eventually transitioning herself out of a job. She still comes back from time to time—like one day this past week, when my daughter was preparing to visit the high school she wants to attend next year. After my daughter left the house, I saw Ci lying on the living room couch. She is old and gray now, missing half an ear (the dog's doing). I picked her up and held her for the first time in a long time. I was surprised to discover a tiny indentation under her chin. 

My daughter learned to love Ci—the thing in hand, in reach, in the present—instead of simply mourning Ça—the thing she used to have, the thing she lost, the thing she would never have again. When you approach life this way, I thought, Ci can become Ça. This can be your That. My daughter learned an object lesson in transition long before I did. But now I've learned it, too.

Casseroles in the Sky

Last night I made a pretty good lasagna for dinner. I don't mean pretty good as in "really-good-but-I'm just-being-humble." I mean pretty good as in "not-the-best-lasagna-you've-ever-had-but-certainly-not-the-worst." It was a little heavy on the tomato sauce—probably more to Garfield's liking than Amy's. At first bite, my daughter declared it simply "OK," but about midway through the meal, it was clear that her attitude toward the lasagna was evolving. After wiping her plate clean and going after the bit that remained on Amy's plate, she stepped back and said, "You know what? I think that lasagna was more than OK. I think it was actually pretty good." (One of the nice things about having a teenager is that when they're not slamming doors and telling you how much they hate you, they can be pretty nuanced in their thinking.)

I'm proud of my pretty-good lasagna for no reason other than the fact that I actually made it. During the entire third trimester of my pregnancy, when my nesting hormones were spiking, an unusually high percentage of my waking (and I suspect sleeping) hours were spent obsessing over lasagna. I never actually made any lasagna. I simply made imaginary lasagna in my mind, over and over again. I had convinced myself that if I made the perfect lasagna—and put it in my freezer for that moment when my family most needed a lasagna—that I would be the perfect mother. I think I even wrote it into my birth plan. Of course, the imaginary lasagna was about as useful as the birth plan. I entered motherhood with an empty freezer, and I've been playing catch-up ever since. 

For a long time, in work and in life, I failed to discern the difference between being perfect and being great. I took it on faith that pursuit of the former would guarantee the latter. I assumed that proper preparation was the best possible inoculation against failure. I believed—as many people I know still do—that pretty good was the enemy of great. 

Luckily, I've spent the last few years building digital products with agile software developers who believe that perfect is the enemy of shipping. They have taught me to simply make stuff and see what happens, even if that stuff is far from perfect, far from great, far from even good. They've taught me that an ounce of planning is better than a pound of it. That it's best to simply make the lasagna when your family asks for lasagna (as my daughter did last night), instead of filling up your freezer with lots of food that will get freezer-burned long before it ever gets eaten—if it ever gets eaten at all.

So, I'm learning to feel OK when I make something that's merely OK, because at least there's room to make it better the next time. (You can't make it better if you don't make it in the first place.) I guess you could say I'm learning how to noodle my way to greatness.


I don't want to be an astronaut. I realize that may seem a little obvious at this point in the game, but it's nice to be able to cross at least one career path off the list. It's not that I don't like looking at the stars. They genuinely take my breath away whenever I catch a glimpse of them. The trouble is if I look at them for too long.

When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me the story of when she was a little girl, and how she would walk out into her front yard and look up at the stars and think about her place in the universe, and how it would provide her with endless comfort and perspective as she realized how truly small her problems were.

I've tried using this mental trick to comfort myself on many occasions, but it often has the opposite effect. Because if I look at the stars for too long, I get a cosmic case of the bends—as if I am barreling too quickly through all those initial Powers of Ten. Before I have a moment to stop and settle into my mother's comforting perspective, I'm zooming past that to nihilistic numbness—a sense and fear that I am so incredibly minute in the scheme of things that nothing I do has any real or lasting meaning. Trying to hold on to my sense of self while trying simultaneously to hold the universe, from start to finish, within the confines of my brain doesn't just take my breath away—it knocks all the wind right out of me, and then some.

This feels like a good metaphor for my relationship to ambition. 

I'm not quite brave enough to embrace the idea that I don't really matter nor quite bold enough to embrace the idea that I do. And so I careen back and forth between various exponents of existential possibility—from the furthest reaches of accomplishment ("Thanks, Terry—it's a pleasure to be back") to more humble achievements ("Dinner's ready—it's quinoa and beans").

I know the sweet spot exists somewhere between the quinoa and Terry Gross. In the movie, I would be hovering just slightly above the earth. Chicago itself would still be visible—maybe you could even make out the man and woman on the picnic blanket if you squinted.

I don't need to feel larger than life. I just want my life to feel large.

Holding the key

Last week, I misplaced the key to my house. I was pretty certain it was somewhere in the house, in a bag or pocket I'd yet to empty. But just as I was about to go on the hunt for it, some kind of internal Mr. Miyagi said to me: Maybe instead of looking for the key, you should wait for the key to find you.

This is not the kind of thought that generally occurs to me. There's a reason my daughter affectionately calls me The Finder: I have an impressive track record of locating pretty much every item she's ever lost (assuming, of course, that socks are excluded from the data set). But somehow it seemed that the lost key was indeed a test...a lesson...a gift.

So, I dug out a spare key and went about my business. And a few mornings later, when I went to find the spare key, I found the original instead. There it was, in the back of my backpack. I had been carrying the key around with me all along. I just didn't know it was there—until suddenly it was hard to miss. You can knock self-help metaphors all you want, but I was beginning to like this one.

Right now, I am hungry for answers—especially answers to big questions about my life and work, about the next chapter and the one after that, and even questions about the final chapter and how my choices now will influence my feelings then.

But I am slowly coming to realize that my usual mode of finding answers—research, reasoning, doggedness, and discipline—may not achieve the best results. I think I am indeed carrying the answers with me, but their location still remains a bit hidden. And the path to that location will not be direct or obvious. The challenge, in this moment, is to become something of a flaneur when it comes to my future—letting myself wander and wonder, get lost, get inspired, and eventually find my way to a place I didn't realize was the destination when I first set out on the journey.

This, of course, is not easy for someone who has spent most of her professional life in pursuit of clarity. I like to claim that I'm comfortable with ambiguity, but that's really only because I feel confident I can quickly conquer it. I don't actually like ambiguity. It always strikes me as something to be endured more than enjoyed. But I think the moment has come for me to get to know ambiguity better, to invite it in and find its charms—to let it linger longer than I have in the past. I think ambiguity will unlock some doors I didn't even know existed, and I need to stay lost long enough to let those doors come find me.

The antidote to fear

About 23 years ago, when I was 23 years old, I was pushed out of an airplane at 13,000 feet.

In all fairness, I had put myself in that airplane. I had driven myself to the skydiving school in Davis. I had signed up for the tandem jump and signed away all my rights in the event of a wrongful death. I had zipped myself into the jumpsuit and hooked myself to the instructor who would be spread-eagle-spooning me from above as we hurtled toward the earth. I was a pretty willing Icarus—right up until the moment I hovered on the threshold of the plane's open door, at which point I started to hesitate. But before the hesitation could fully register, I was pushed out into the sky. 

I remember having just enough time to form one complete and coherent thought, as the bottom rapidly dropped out from under me: "Oh my God. I've made a terrible mistake." 

I had made the day trip up to Davis at the urging of my friend Juliet. Juliet—who, unlike me, was the kind of person you might expect to jump from an airplane—was a college friend with whom I was staying while on vacation in San Francisco. She had suggested the skydive as a way for me to kill some time while she was at work. "Oh, and do the one-minute free fall," she had said just before I booked the appointment. "Don't do the 30-second one—it's way too short."

So there I was, in the midst of the longest 60 seconds of my life. When I had seen videos of people skydiving, it had always looked like they were happily floating and flying through the air. I don't think I even imagined there being much speed involved, but if I did, I probably thought it was similar to racing downhill on a bicycle, the wind rushing against your face. However, the actual sensation I had in the midst of the free fall was not one of floating or flying at all. It was more like the sensation you might have if you were an anvil that had just been dropped from a skyscraper—a rapid descent, at a ferocious velocity, of something never meant to be in the air in the first place. The wind didn't so much rush against my face as temporarily reshape it.

It was all I could do to simply arch my body and trust that the instructor on my back was still alive up there. Bits and pieces of thoughts made their way through my disoriented brain: "Not bird...human I am heavy...stomach hurt...parachute pray."

And then, suddenly, it all changed. The instructor was alive. The parachute was open. And spread out below me—four thousand feet below me—was a beautiful patchwork of farmland. The wind that had been shrieking at me just a few seconds before was gently whooshing in my ears now. The feeling of heaviness was gone. And now, yes indeed now, I was floating. Now I was a bird. I'm not sure how many seconds it took to get to the ground from that point, but those were among the happiest moments of my life—a flying dream in which I was fully awake, fully alive.

The story I told myself after the fact was that I went skydiving not to kill the time but to kill my fear. And I did kill it, for a time. It was not long after this episode that I worked up the courage to flirt with Amy, even though I knew she was way out of my league. Shortly after this, I decided to leave the security of my first job after college and try out the life of a freelance editor and writer. While I wouldn't say I was free of anxiety, I did move through the world fairly undaunted. At least for a while.

Fear, of course, is resilient. Even when vanquished, it lies in wait—like Voldemort when he was bodiless in Romania. Eventually, fear came back and settled into me. And while I've fought it ever since, I haven't quite managed to shake it off fully in quite some time.

My fear was in full force toward the end of last week, when after about 9 blissful days away from my job, I started to panic about my future—about whether I would go back to what I know or forge ahead into some new, uncharted path. (Honestly, I think the only thing more terrifying than jumping out of an airplane is having to work on one's LinkedIn profile.) 

This morning I met my friend Arianna for coffee, and among the many wise things she said to me was this: "The best antidote to fear is curiosity." And she's right. I know that I need to keep bringing myself to the thresholds that scare me and diving off of them to see what's below—even if it means having to sustain the disorientation of another free fall or two.

I have to remind myself that there is a parachute, even if I don't know what color it is. I have to tell myself that it will open—that I actually know how to open it myself now. I have to believe that when it does open, I will indeed remember how to fly.

Stuck in the middle

For a while now, I've been trying to find my core. I'm not talking metaphorically here. I am referring to that powerful and mysterious set of muscles in front and back that other people are always talking about activating and strengthening. Lately, I've been worried that maybe I just don't have a core—that my abdomen has the physical equivalent of a borderline personality.

I've always told people that the reason I don't do yoga is because yoga makes me cry. And it's true: Yoga does make me cry. But while my yoga-devotee friends have always seen this as a positive sign—proof that yoga is clearly helping me reach previously inaccessible pockets of grief stored deep inside my muscle memory—I've finally had to admit to myself that the crying is really just an adult form of tantrum. It's not an ecstatic release; there's nothing noble or profound in it. It's simply my being angry and frustrated about being asked to do something I don't understand how to do—combined with the embarrassment of doing it poorly in front of people I don't know, people who are far better dressed for the occasion. 

(A word of warning: This is probably the blog post where I get a little Eat, Pray, Love on you. If you're not into that kind of thing, this is your chance to click back to Facebook and watch that video of the Humpback whale jumping on top of those kayakers. Spoiler alert: Everyone's OK.) 

I first had a meltdown about my core a year ago, when Amy was trying to show me how to do a yoga stretch for my back. After several unsuccessful attempts on my part and an exchange that felt a little like an elaborate physical Who's on First routine, we finally got to the heart of the problem—the core. Amy tried to show me where my core was by showing me where her core was, but it's hard to find your own core by looking at someone else's. (Perhaps I am speaking metaphorically after all.)

I coped by simply tuning out all things related to yoga and Pilates. (This made it difficult to read Us Magazine on long plane trips, but I dealt with it.) However, when I was first talking with my friend Julie about my plans for the sabbatical—all of which involved various ways to exercise my brain—she asked, "Are you planning to do anything physical?" Right. My body. The thing my brain is attached to.

Cut to this morning. I can't really afford to venture to Bali on this sabbatical, but I did decide to splurge a bit in the Mission. That's where my friend Barbara's office is located, and where she conducts training in the Gokhale Method—a proprietary approach designed to alleviate the bad posture and back pain born of modern life. Its founder, Esther Gokhale, draws much of her inspiration from what she found in indigenous cultures—where she observed that people have naturally J-shaped spines instead of the S-shaped ones we now see in the typical American X-ray.

Admittedly, the pictures of indigenous people on the Gokhale website made me want to dust off my old Frantz Fanon books. And I am a little wary of faddish self-improvement methods, so it didn't help matters that the New York Times had dubbed Gokhale "The Posture Guru of Silicon Valley" a couple of years ago. Then again, the article appeared in Business Day not Sunday Styles, and Gokhale has managed to create something that even Matt Drudge and lefty Google execs can agree on.

Plus, there's the fact that Barbara swears by it. She's a deeply respected and widely beloved chiropractic doctor who has been in practice for more than two decades, and she says the before-and-after transformation she has seen in the posture of patients trying Gokhale—after just a few sessions—has turned her into a true believer.

It probably helps that Barbara herself is kind of magical. She reminds me a bit of Santa Claus—that is, if he were a lesbian, more stylish and in better shape, and had an office on Valencia Street. She has a Clausian kind of exuberance, and she brings you little gifts when she sees you—albeit largely in the form of tips about your posture. This summer, we were standing in line with a few friends to see a film, and when I took out my phone and started to look down at it—with that tell-tale sloped neck we all seem to have now—Barbara gently and wordlessly moved the hand cradling my phone up to eye level, all the while staying in unbroken conversation with the person next to her. 

So, this week, I decided to give Gokhale a try. If nothing else, it would finally allow me a chance to make good on another long-broken promise to my mother—to sit up straight. That's how I found myself with two other women in Barbara's office this morning, looking at pictures of sleeping babies, African farmers, Ubong tribesmen, and cross-sections of compressed versus elongated sheep spines. The first class is all about basics. First, there was some education via those slides—along with an explanation of how American backs started their decline around the time that "the debutante slouch" was first popularized in the 1920s. Then, we learned how to make kidney bean feet and sit in a chair while hugging its back and gently stretching our spines.

Everything was going really well until Barbara asked us to lie on our backs and practice the proper sleeping position. That's when she used the C word. But rather than cry, I simply said: "I don't think I have a core." (And much to my relief, one of the other women in the class chimed in that she felt the same way.)

"Of course you have a core," Barbara said. "Let's see if we can find it." And in the same easy way she nudged my hand up to eye level this summer, she had me lie down, take a deep breath, and exhale while she pushed gently on my muscles.

"Feel that?" she asked. I didn't.

I thought this would be the start of another game of Who's on First, but then she said, "Make sure you exhale all the way out this time. Get completely empty." I did as she instructed, and for the first time, instead of numb blankness, I felt a distinct tug in my abdomen.

It turns out I do have a core. And I don't even need to cry in order to find it.

Know when to hold 'em

At the beginning of yesterday's surf lesson, Carlos told Amy she was ready to start using a leash—that urethane cord that tethers you and your surfboard, so the two of you can stay close to each other at all times. Amy was a little wary, a little scared of getting hurt. Carlos said that while getting hurt was certainly a possibility, it was also equally possible to get hurt without the leash. Plus, the leash at least reduced the risk of someone else in the water getting hurt.

I was thinking about that leash this morning as I drove down the highway at 6:30 a.m., shuttling my daughter to the parking lot where she would soon board a bus with her 8th Grade classmates for three days of Outdoor Ed in the Sierras. The website for the rustic lodge where they'll be staying opens with the following description: "Nestled in the woods on historic Donner Pass..." (Donner Pass, I should remind you, is named after the Donner Party, a group of ill-fated 19th century pioneers who resorted to cannibalism in order to survive a brutal winter.) 

I tried not to think about the Donner Party as I unloaded her duffel bag and imagined her up in the Sierras climbing up the rocks, sleeping under the trees—physically and electronically untethered from Amy and me.

As the group gathered in a circle in the parking lot, her science teacher began his pep talk. He read Shel Silverstein's "What If" and said, "It's OK to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to get them flying in formation." He talked about how this was a great opportunity to learn independence and adaptability—to push outside your comfort zone and do what you didn't think you had the strength to do. Then I realized he was addressing the kids and not the parents. 

This is her fourth year of Outdoor Ed, and you'd think I'd be used to the routine by now. But every time she hugs me goodbye before boarding the bus, I always want the hug to last a few beats longer than it does.

I remember when my daughter was just a few weeks old and I told my friend Gayle that being a parent felt like walking around with my chest cut open and my heart exposed to the world—all the time. Several years later, I was talking with one of my daughter's teachers about her own daughter heading off to college, and I shared the same observation. This teacher, who had taught and tutored in Silicon Valley for many years, said, "You know, Steve Jobs once said almost the exact same thing to me about being a parent." (I was momentarily puffed up at the idea of having shared the same thought as Steve Jobs, though I became a little deflated when I realized he, of course, had thought of it first.)

Yesterday, as Amy cautiously strapped on the leash, Carlos pointed to some of the expert surfers further out in the water. They don't need a leash anymore, he told us. "They know the waves well, and they know when and how to hug the board if they need to, so it doesn't get lost or go flying too far."

With every day I get closer to being that kind of surfer as a parent. But I'm not there yet. And today, I just wanted to hug the board for as long as I could and not let go.



In the name of the mother

For the first year of my daughter's life, she refused to address me by name. I know what you're thinking: Most babies fail to say much in the first year. But somewhere around month 10 or 11, she seized on the word "Mommy" and joyously bounced it around in her mouth for hours on end. This was lovely, except for the fact that "Mommy" was Amy's name.

My name—at least at first—was Ema. And no matter how many times I looked her in the eye, smiled my widest, most loving smile, pointed at myself, and cooed, "Ema...Ema...I'm Ema," she would always just look at me with a confused expression on her face. Whenever she needed something, she would simply point in my direction and grunt the infant equivalent of "Hey you." Unless she needed something from Amy, in which case she would toss off a casual "Mom-my!"

I had originally wanted to be called Mommy. But when I was in my last trimester and Amy and I started to discuss naming rights, it became quite clear that she deserved the moniker far more than I did. It wasn't just that Mommy was iconic or sentimental. The word would be a talisman of sorts in a world far more apt to honor my connection based on blood than Amy's forged in sweat and tears. It wouldn't prevent people from nonchalantly asking us, "Who's the real mom?" as if they were simply asking for the time. But when we turned away from the person and our daughter looked at Amy, arms outstretched, and demanded "Mommy...uppy," we would all feel just a little less wounded by the encounter. 

Amy claimed Mommy, and I looked around for a suitable alternative. I knew a few women in two-mom households who had opted for Ema, which means Mommy in Hebrew. While Hebrew is essentially Greek to me, it was nonetheless comforting to know that the word had been around for a while and had all the connotations of Mommy for someone who did actually speak the language. Thus, Ema it was.

After the baby was born, Amy and I went through a careful training process with our families to get them to use the proper designation when referring to each of us in front of the baby. I had stridently corrected several family members who had handed the crying baby back to me with the words, "There, there. It's OK. Here's your Mommy now."  

For the baby's first Christmas, Amy's sister Sarah made our little threesome stockings with our names sewn on the front. On the back of Amy's, she had sewn "Mom" and on the back of mine, she had sewn "Ema." I loved that stocking, and to this day I still feel a pang of guilt about the fact that I felt compelled to add a clumsy glitter-glue Star of David under the "Ema"—just in case anyone was confused. 

After several months, everyone was finally getting the hang of calling me Ema around the baby...except the baby herself. I kept trying to imprint it, but it just wouldn't stick. Ema was a dud.

In desperation, I decided to hunt for a different name. And that's when "Mama" came to me. I'm not sure why I hadn't considered it before, but there it was. I tried it on, let it roll off my tongue a few times. I liked the way it sounded on me. Plus, bonus points for alliteration. But I wasn't going to commit to any new name until I could test it under real-life conditions. I approached the baby in her crib, where she seemed to be preparing for the Junior Olympics. I looked her in the eye, made my smile as wide as it could possibly go, pointed to myself and said, "Mama...Mama...I'm Mama."

"Mama," she said back, easily and lovingly, with no trace of annoyance that it had taken me so long to figure out my own name. So, Mama it was. Mama it is. Mama it will always be.


Are you there, God?

One of the stories my family likes to repeat is the one about the day my aunt married my uncle, when my grandmother pulled the wedding band aside before the reception. "Just to be clear," she told the bandleader, "there will be no folk dancing."  

My grandmother was not worried about riverdancers overrunning the reception. She meant there would be no hora—the circular frenzy of flying feet that signifies, above all else, that you are in the presence of Jews.

How my mother's mother—the daughter of Conservadox Jews, the granddaughter of a guy who spent most of his days at the Downtown Talmud Torah and was buddies with Mordecai Kaplan around the time Kaplan founded Reconstructionism—grew weary enough of Judaism to put her foot down on the hora, I'm not entirely sure.

Maybe it was the lingering influence of my grandfather, who before dying of a brain tumor at the age of 42, had worshipped The Golden Rule and the Sports Pages, devoted himself first and foremost to the latest technology, described himself as a humanist, and proudly voted for Norman Thomas in 1948. (Had my grandfather been alive this week, I think he would have fit right in—emailing this article to folks, tracking Bernie Sanders in the polls, gearing up for football season, and pre-ordering the latest iPhone.) 

My grandfather was by no means an atheist. He believed in the divine—God just took on a slightly different form for him. He used to tell my mother that he believed in Santa Claus, at least as a symbol of the spirit of giving. (Many of my mother's fondest memories of her childhood before her father died involved elaborate Christmas mornings.)

I don't think my grandparents eschewed all Jewish traditions. I did manage to once find a photo of my grandmother smoking a cigarette in front of what looks like a Passover plate and a kiddush cup. She was movie-star beautiful, my grandmother, and she looks in the photo a little like Rita Hayworth might have looked had she been invited, at the last minute, to a seder at the house of her studio chief, Harry Cohn.

If my mother's parents passed down any kind of principles to their daughters, it was mostly of the ethical sort. Do unto others, you are your brother's keeper (and that goes for your sisters too), we live in one world—one planet—and everyone in the world is responsible for everyone else. 

My father's parents were a little more traditional, though they too had all the hallmarks of mid-century modern assimilation. The menu from my father's bar mitzvah reception reveals that shrimp cocktail was the first course, and my father's mother spent more time making people feel like chopped liver than making it herself. (I'm sorry, Nana, but it's true.)

By the time Judaism got passed down to me, it was a little watered down. It's not that my parents didn't try to give us a Jewish education. We belonged to a Reform synagogue and dutifully went to services at the High Holidays, lit the candles at Hanukkah, faithfully stopped buying Christmas trees after my brother's bar mitzvah, and had a seder together every year until the year my parents got divorced. 

Nowadays, thanks to my sister-in-law, my parents once again spend Passover together. And they, coincidentally, independently, joined the same synagogue in New York, where they happily attended Rosh Hashanah services this morning. They even sat together.

My own interest in and commitment to Judaism has waxed and waned over the years. Back when I was 12, my parents asked if I wanted a bat mitzvah (I guess girls had more choice about the matter than boys), and I was resolute: No. I was just too conflicted about what I believed—and who, if anyone, I believed in—to feel I could go through with the act in a way that didn't feel like an act.

Today, my relationship to Judaism would make my great-great-grandfather and his buddy Mordecai surely think I'm meshugeneh. I sit on the board of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, but on my daughter's 13th birthday, Amy and I sat with her in church. (That's probably the start of a whole other blog post.)

I will celebrate with friends tonight, eating apples and honey and talking about Hillary and Bernie. Tomorrow, I will perform my own variation on tashlich—throwing myself into the ocean for surf lesson number two.

Like my grandfather, I do believe in the divine—but who or what that is just takes on a slightly different form for me.


Somewhere between obligation and longing lies contentment

Yesterday I forgot to meditate. All right, I chose not to meditate. That's because I am like 99.8% of the human population and when I experience something that makes me feel instantly, genuinely better about myself and my life, something that is scientifically proven to be good for me, something that requires just a little bit of effort—not even effort but simply intention—I do it two times, sing its praises, and then stop. And then feel guilty.

Yesterday, instead of meditating, I made my daughter's lunch and walked the dog. And then when I looked at the clock, I realized that if I took the time to meditate, I would be late to meet my friend David for coffee. The [imagine a word here that means what people mean when they use the word irony] is that I was still late to meet him, because I went the slow way and hit traffic.

And other than a nice chat with David, it felt like I was in traffic for the rest of the day. I hated everything I wrote. I resented my to-do list for feeling neglected and silently judging me. Unable to do anything for myself, I focused on my family obligations. And unable to do anything for myself, I resented my family obligations.

I was convinced yesterday turned out the way it did because I didn't meditate. Amy thinks that perhaps it was a little bigger than that—that what happened at the end of the week was simply the emotional equivalent of the pain meds wearing off. The newness of the leave, of writing, of surfing, of seeing friends in the middle of the day, and, yes, the newness of meditating masked the anxiety associated with this transition. "The anxiety was like a wave forming," she said. "It was bound to come to shore eventually. The key is being able to spot those waves and ride them instead of having them crash on you." (We seem to be using a lot of surfing metaphors around the house lately.)

As frustrating as yesterday was, it was a revelation to see that I am capable of creating my worst self without the Bogeyman of work to blame. I'll try to remember that when I'm back at work.

Plus, the longing for meditation produced the necessary commitment to try it again today. Once again, we pulled out the yoga mat, placed it in the backyard, and listened to the mix of birds and sirens that forms our neighborhood soundtrack. The dog is still trying to figure out what we're up to, but I think eventually he'll stop trying to wake us up by licking our faces while we close our eyes and breathe. 

After we finished, I turned to Amy and said, "I want to meditate with you every morning. I really love meditating with you."

"I really love it too," she said. "Your breathing helped me not think about the piles in the garage." 


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Sometime in the early 1990s, I found myself at what would prove to be the best poetry reading I've ever attended. The poet in question, Eileen Myles, stood at the mic, in the middle of Dixon Place—i.e., Ellie Covan's living room—and looked down, with a bit of mischief, at a wrinkled piece of paper in her hands. She started by way of introduction—telling us what it was like to write the poem, how she felt about the poem, how she hoped we would feel about the poem. And then, as she finished her introduction, she sat down. For all I know, the piece of paper was blank. 

I thought about Eileen Myles today, because today, I'm not going to write for you. Today is a day I want to think and remember. And to write, today, feels wrong. I don't want to turn the unspeakable into words. I don't want to sprinkle my personal narrative into our collective understanding of today. I don't want to demean anyone or anything by searching for my own meaning. I don't want to cheapen real emotion by converting it into casual copy. I don't want to tell you a story.

I am not going to write because there is too much to say and nothing to say and words cannot describe. Instead, I am just going to think. And remember. Because today is not a day for writing.