Moment of Grace

IMG_0955I found myself praying in a church yesterday—technically, a synagogue. I haven’t prayed in a religious structure in more than 25 years. Balen and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of his close friends, Dennis. The celebration was folded into a normal Shabbat service, a new experience for both of us. I was raised in the Protestant faith and attended Baptist, Pentecostal, and Wesleyan services, even a few Catholic masses here and there for special occasions with friends. But, I’d never taken Balen to a church.

I had lived a few houses down from Rabbi Greg for many years during my first marriage. His wife gave my daughter, Britt, cello lessons through junior high and high school. Britt’s recitals were held in the synagogue where the bench rows formed a U shape around a raised platform.

Balen chose to sit with friends on the left side—a cluster of boys all around the cusp of 13. A few wore yarmulkes. Curly red hair, black wavy hair, pale blond, dark brown. I could see the row of them from where I sat, all different heights in various stages of man-child transition. It was amazing to see them all sitting in one place (sometimes fidgeting) for more than two hours without their hands wrapped around a cell phone, eyes downcast. Instead, they watched the blessing of their friend as he entered manhood in the Jewish faith, regardless of whether they understood any Hebrew. Part of me ached as I watched Balen. He did not have a strong cultural affiliation to any one belief system to mark this coming of age.

They watched Rabbi Greg wrap a tallit, or prayer shawl, around Dennis’s shoulders and listened as the significance of the knotted fringes were explained. Those who knew the words joined the tallit prayer while the rest of us felt enveloped by the ancient echoes of a language whose words urged us to wrap ourselves in the tallit, to feel ourselves woven together in one fabric.

I had felt wrapped in the comfort of community since reaching the synagogue doors where we were greeted by Annette Fineberg, the woman who saved my life when Balen was six days old. She was the doctor on call when I stopped in the office to have a swollen leg examined 13 years ago after a c-section. She knew it was a warning sign for blood clots and sent me to the ER with firm instructions not to leave until we found some answers. Many procedures and several hours later, I was admitted with multiple blood clots in my lungs that could have silently killed me at home without warning. Over the years, we’ve seen each other in town and chatted about life, our kids. She will always remember my face; I will always remember hers. I found out yesterday morning that she is Dennis’s aunt. Small world!

As Shabbat drew to a close, Rabbi Greg and Annette led us in singing a Blessing for Healing as she strummed the guitar. Keep the names of loved ones that need healing in your heart as we sing, he urged us. Verses of Hebrew echoed in the synagogue like the pitch of singing bowls, the intonation not unlike the Shiva mantra I chant in yoga.

May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us

Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing

And let us say Amen.

Bless those in need of healing with r’fu’a sh’le-i-ma

The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,

And let us say Amen.

After the service, I walked into the sunlight momentarily relieved of a weighted pressure that had been keeping my chest tight and closed for weeks. I breathed deep from my belly, the weight lifted and I bowed my head with a slight namaste to the community of spirits surrounding me in a moment of grace.


Indiana Jones…you got nothin’ on this kid!

“Mom, look, an entire skull!”

You would have thought B had just made the latest dinosaur fossil discovery—right in the middle of the co-op parking lot. He held up a tiny skull, grey fluff still intact in some spots.

“Look—see the brain case?!”

“Um, yeah, can you find ones that are completely dried? I’m not sure what that will smell like in your room if it’s not entirely decomposed—the bugs still have some work to do,” I replied.

“Ok, good idea.” He placed the cranium back among the other bones littered under the large sycamore tree.

A cool breeze ruffled B’s hair as he bent over another owl pellet, pulling it apart with a small twig and separating bits of bone from fur. We were enjoying a rare July day in California’s Central Valley when it wasn’t much above 80 degrees—such a welcome respite from the triple digits two weeks earlier.

I left the house a short time before to run errands, feeling a little impatient that I had so much on my to-do list and a seven year old who kept stopping to investigate life’s minutia. After a few minutes of watching him sift through the dirt, I realized that rushing him into the store and risking a melt-down because I wouldn’t let him look for bones wasn’t worth the trade-off of giving him another five or ten minutes of investigation.

I stood with my purse slung over one shoulder, looking at the people giving him quizzical glances on their way to load groceries into cars and bikes. What was this kid doing crouched in the dirt under a tree on the fringes of the parking lot? A sweet-faced older woman wheeled her cart toward us and stopped.

“What are you looking for there?” she asked B.

“Bones,” he mumbled, a bit embarrassed.

“Show her what you have,” I encouraged him.

He lifted up the clear plastic container that we had gotten for salsa at lunch and hadn’t used. It was nearly full to the brim with femurs half the length of my pinky finger, narrow pelvic bones, jawbones with bits of teeth and vertebra still fused.

“Wow, quite a treasure trove there, I see,” she smiled down at him. “Where did those come from?”

He pointed above his head to the owl box installed in the sycamore’s branches.

She patted me on the arm. “Congratulations, Mom.”

I wasn’t sure what the congratulations were for. Was it that I was showing patience in letting him explore? That I wasn’t freaking out about him touching all the bones and fur (he could wash when he was done)? That I had a curious child enthralled and excited about these rodent bones as if he was on a dino dig in Utah?

I asked if she had children. Yes, two grown now, a son and daughter. And one grandson, but he had autism, she said. She glanced at my son and when she looked back at me, her eyes were shiny with unfallen tears. I could see her unspoken dreams, her disappointment and acceptance. I wanted to offer hope and solace, but what could I do but nod and offer a sad smile?

We wished each other a lovely day and I turned to sit on the concrete edge of the parking lot to marvel over each of B’s new finds and to let the tears come—the tears of gratefulness, of living in a perfect moment, the here and now full of wonder and possibility.

Don’t make me stop this car…

I’m not sure how I got to the side of the freeway, pacing the gravel shoulder, hands clenched in fists and enough tension in my jaws to crack a tooth. I mean I know I hit the brakes hard, pulled over and slammed my door. But how did I get to this place of such anger and anxiety with my seven year old when only two hours before we were baking chocolate chip cookies together in the kitchen?

He wore the cute handmade cowboy apron I bought for him at farmer’s market when it still reached below his knees. He was exuberant about adding the flour mixture to the butter and sugar in the electric mixer and I patiently explained why we should do that more slowly—so we didn’t have white powder covering everything on the counter.

I was trying to get cookies made to take them into the city with us to my older daughter’s fashion show that evening. I’d already taken B to the grocery store, dog park and car wash, scrubbed the bathrooms and done two loads of laundry. There are never enough hours in the weekend to get everything done and we’d be gone until 10 tonight and tomorrow was the start of another work/school week. But once the cookies were in the oven and I frantically cleaned the kitchen, then tried to do something with my hair, B was ensconced with a tub of Legos, building something new and quite content to stay put for awhile. He didn’t want to put shoes on or head to the car for a one and a half hour drive.

My body was telling me the same, but I was too busy pushing the override buttons to listen. Until it was too late. And I found myself standing on the freeway shoulder ready to do anything to make him stop screaming. I’d let my anxiety build and feed into his until there we were—him inside the car, banging against the window and trying to kick the door down, me pacing the gravel, resisting the urge to run into traffic or pull him out of the car and spank the shit out of him or just walk away until the cops found me or…or…the negative thoughts and emotions swirled in my head until I was dizzy.

My partner got out of the passenger’s side of the car. “What can I do?” I just shook my head and kept pacing. “Talk to me—I don’t know what to do here.”

“I don’t know what you can do,” I finally looked at him. “Just give me a couple minutes here. I’m trying not to kill him.”

An overstatement, yes. But the truth is when that white-hot anger boils over into my brain, it short-circuits all connection to rational thought. I hate to admit it, but I get it, I understand what those parents who go over the edge might experience. I know what standing on that precipice feels like.

I placed the car keys into his outstretched hand and we continued our journey. Some whining still emanated from the back seat, but the knife edge was gone. I stewed in self-recriminating tears for the next 20 miles until a chirpy voice called from behind me, “Let’s play eye-spy!”

Mother’s Day funk

I’ve been in a funk since Mother’s Day. Can’t say I’m fond of most holidays printed on a calendar unless they come with an extra weekend day to take a camping trip but don’t involve a guilt trip, unrealistic expectations or conflicting emotions. Those Hallmark holidays are usually a set-up for disappointment and frustration and this past Sunday was no different.

I’ve been a mother for more than half my life now and it remains the most challenging identity—far beyond that of being a daughter, wife, sister, or aunt. I became a mom at 19, two weeks shy of my 20th birthday. Six months after B’s birth, I went back to school and combined the roles of college student and single parent for the next seven years through undergraduate and graduate school. Those years are somewhat of a blur and must be why my body now demands at least eight hours of sleep a night because I certainly didn’t get those hours back then. Always a mid-term to study for, a paper to write in the hours after play, dinner, story and bedtime.

So I admit to having deflated expectations when the only contact I received from my first-born on Mother’s Day was a text message and a promise to call after work, (which she didn’t.) I know, I know, she’s 20, busy living her own life in the city. But what about all the years that I struggled to stay in school and raise her too? The nights of mopping her feverish forehead when I had a final to study for the following day, carrying her in a backpack to lectures because I couldn’t afford enough hours of childcare, taking out additional student loans (that I am still repaying) because quality preschool was twice the cost of our rent?

I don’t want to whine and wallow, but a little recognition, some acknowledgement would sure be nice. Yes, my feelings are hurt. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but these feelings linger and I’m tired of pushing them aside.

I am so grateful for two healthy children, for being able to spend time with my own mother on Mother’s Day. But even when I try so hard to focus on these blessings in my life, I am derailed by negative emotions. Why? Is it that I try in vain to bury them so deep that others can’t see them? So others can’t judge me?