Rosh Hashanah services in Hawaii… the Barchu, Shema, Amidah, Aleinu… there was such a sense of going home with these prayers, these prayers I’ve been reciting almost my whole life. I’m nine, at Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop, Massachusetts. My hometown. One of a very small group of kids from my mostly Irish and Italian neighborhood who walk to the temple after school, twice a week, to attend Hebrew School. Once there, short, chubby, bespectacled Mr. Zippor greets us at the door to his classroom and takes our hand, kissing his own hand as he says, in his heavily accented English, “I kiss your hand!” We start our lesson laughing. My Bat Mitzvah will be happening just a few years later, in 1971, so I have to learn how to read this language that’s read backwards, with letters and symbols that have nothing to do with the language I’ve been speaking my whole life, and even less to do with the language of my Irish and Italian friends on the block. But I pay attention… I learn it… the language, the meaning of the prayers, and in three years will I stand on the bima and read from the Torah, something my mother and my grandmother didn’t get to do because back then that honor was reserved for boys, and even my Bat Mitzvah would not be as elaborate as my brother’s Bar Mitzvah five years later, but three decades after that my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, at Barnert Temple in New Jersey, followed by a party on a big boat that took us around NYC, was every bit as significant and grand as my son’s Hawaii Bar Mitzvah would later be. It’s 1996. Twenty-five years after my Bat Mitzvah. I’m at a High Holiday service at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. We just joined this synagogue, located right outside NYC, and there’s a community of people I’m meeting through gathering in this beautiful house of worship with the sharing of the prayers. The chants. For me it’s not about organized religion… it’s about community and DNA and it feels ancient; it doesn’t matter if we came there from Israel or Boston or New York City or Eastern Europe or anywhere else… The Barchu, Shema, Amidah, Aleinu… the prayers that resonate for me on Rosh Hashanah, we all know them. It’s a collective language we speak, one I learned at a young age when My Zippor sat our class down in front of a chalkboard in a classroom of a small temple in a mostly non-Jewish community in Massachusetts, and he taught us the Hebrew alphabet. That’s where we started. Fast forward to today, to 2016. Twenty years after being a young mom at Barnert Temple in New Jersey… after walking into that congregation not knowing anyone and leaving, ten years later, deeply entrenched in that community. I’m in Hawaii now. There’s no synagogue on this island; we’re the wandering Jews having services wherever there’s an available space, but then someone donates a two-room office space in one of the resorts and we gather there, and it’s ours. It’s not beautiful… there’s a low ceiling with florescent lighting and no stained glass and the chairs are folding chairs, none of the lovely wooden rows of seats found in other temples, but there is the magnificent rescued and restored Torah from a synagogue in Czechoslovakia, and because of this sacred scroll this office space becomes a temple, and I’m there after having not been there in a long time because my kids are grown and gone, and I’m thinking about all this when the service begins. I know the prayers. I’ve always known the prayers. I don’t even need the book but I read it anyway, in Hebrew, not the English transliteration, because I remember how to read that language — the one I learned as a kid when I wanted to be playing on the street with my friends who didn’t have to go to Hebrew School, and the words of these prayers roll off my lips, along with everyone else, and at this service there’s a fiddle playing… the distinct mournful sound of that instrument, so much more insistent from the gentler violin, even though it’s physically the same instrument… and suddenly I’m even further back, before Hawaii and New Jersey and Winthrop — it’s the late 1880’s in Riga, Russia, where my great grandparents and their parents lived and gathered to pray. Riga, a place I’ve never been and a place my family eventually had to escape when Jews were no longer welcome to live in their own homes, when Jews were being rounded up and forbidden to gather… to pray… and finally sent away on trains to nowhere during the unbearable time of the Holocaust — but on this day, October 2nd, 2016, the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish year of 5777, as the fiddle plays, I’m with all of them — my ancestors, my beloved grandmother, long gone now, and all the Jews gathering around the world as we recite the same prayers… the Barchu, Shema, Amidah, Aleinu… and I remember that through the passing down of the prayers, all of these years, we are connected through language and community and story and the act of gathering to worship. And I realize, at that moment, that this is one of the deepest forms of going home.
My parents lived in the same modest brick house in Winthrop Massachusetts, just outside Boston, for over fifty years. Now they live in Houston. It’s a new thing, Houston… Texas.
Next weekend, I’m going to lead two writers’ workshops for women around the corner — literally a two-minute walk — from the house where I grew up. The house I could return to, until last year, because it was mine. Ours. Now it belongs to another family. A family just starting out. I’ll be around the corner from my childhood, from the place of all my firsts; from the place I went, seven years ago, to recover from surgery for cancer, the adult child of my parents, recovering in the room of my childhood. The video of Rena, Iva, and our group of Emerson College friends was taken there, in 1981, before we headed into our separate lives, when Rena was still a girl, laughing. It’s a place of magic, of playing in suburban streets until long after dark, back when kids did that sort of thing without parents watching — our gang of scrappy Irish and Italian kids, and me, the token Jew. A place so alive for me I can barely walk down the street without falling into the euphoria of a first kiss; of running home from Lisa’s Brooks’ house, fast, fast, in the dark; of climbing onto the low roof of the red one-car detached garage, my hidden place under a weeping willow, to write in my diary… the one with the tiny gold lock and key, kept in a secret drawer; memories of piano lessons with bald Mr. Greslin, two houses up the hill; and my love affair with the slate gray/blue Atlantic Ocean, my first ocean, across the street and visible from my bedroom window, an object of longing; and my beloved Nana and Papa, both gone now — her four years, him forty-four — and the first day of school all those years, every first day, new clothes spread out on the bed, sometimes bright red clothes, accenting the fact that I was red, and yes the kids would circle around me chanting, “Red is dead, red is dead, we won’t play with you,” so there was also that, but later there was theater and all those musicals and suddenly red hair was a cause for celebration, not shame; and there was Marylou Cronin, the young girl who was murdered by her mother’s boyfriend back then, and when I came home from camp, and Marylou was still missing, Gloria told me she was hiding under my bed… I looked for her for years under that bed, even after they found her body in separate black garbage bags, under his porch… she’s part of that time too, the tragic lost girl from fourth grade, discarded like trash… and years of Hebrew School and a Bat Mitzvah, back when it wasn’t as important for a girl as a boy, and I could only have a dessert party, not the whole dinner thing my brother had later; and Howie Brooks’ wallet-sized school picture tucked under my pillow in sixth grade when he still had braces and wore a red and blue plaid cotton shirt; and the Monkees the Beatles the Partridge Family and Bobby Sherman, all that early music, 1971, ’72, black lights and BBG parties, stolen kisses with boys on Back Beach, and a cement beach wall, down a steep set of rickety wooden steps, where I could sit above the ocean, alone, dreaming of what life would bring, never imagining that I would end up in Hawaii, 5,000 miles away from this place I could always return to, later: this place of joy, of all those firsts, of my young beautiful parents and my little brother, back then… a house filled with love and memory a house that is no longer mine.
I’ll be writing around the corner from my childhood in five days with all of that swirling around me. It just worked out that way, that this is the space I got. It’s a wonderful bright room overlooking the ocean (the weekend after that we’ll be writing in a theater in Boston), and I’ve never written in a place so filled up, so loaded with history… my history. It could be extraordinary. I wonder if I’ll be able to breathe. The thought both thrills and terrifies me. Going home to write.
I woke up on a table, unable to breathe. There was a man, a Chinese man, Dr. Wong, a radiologist, ordering me, almost begging me to take in air, but I had forgotten how. I had never experienced pain like this, the pain of an organ suddenly missing; an organ taken, removed, cut out: my lung, the upper left lobe gone, and I woke up on a metal table and breathing was not a thing I knew how to do.
Panic. Memories of drowning, my belief that I had drowned in a past life, a ship with sails that went down; memory of an actual event: 1971, Mindy Solomon. I was eleven. Jewish sleepaway camp, pools, lifeguards; prepubescent girls who couldn’t see straight we were so alive with the sudden discovery of desire and the boys across the field, midnight bunk raids and stolen kisses. A secret stolen kiss with Bobby Savage in a bowling alley. My first kiss. A tongue in my mouth… magical rush of desire, passion, heartbeat; a cute blond-haired blue-eyed Ashkenazi Jewish boy’s tongue in my mouth.
In the pool that day, Mindy Solomon, all chubby Marblehead privileged Jewess, all wound up from her own first kiss with another boy, a dark haired Sephardic Jewish boy named Lawrence, not Savage and Sweet and blond-haired-blue-eyed like my Ashkenazi Bobby, my first-kiss Bobby — Lawrence: braces, awkward, acne; still, he kissed her and she felt all I felt… rush of desire, passion, heartbeat, and so it didn’t matter that she couldn’t swim when she jumped into the pool on that day. I had dared her and I promised to save her if she started to drown and when she did start to drown, I offered myself as a life raft and she climbed on, grasping for something, anything to buoy her up; she was bigger and more desperate, and then there was all that privilege.
So that on day in 1971, at Camp Litchaven in Southern New Hampshire, James Taylor blasting in the background and other girls stealing first time kisses behind colorful cabanas, Mindy Solomon, not intentionally, not REALLY intentionally, almost drowned me.
What I remember next is the lifeguard, an older man, a counselor: bald, distracted, he had been falling asleep in that high chair, he dove in and saved me, finally, pulled her off me and dragged me out of the pool, resuscitated me, brought me back to life with, “BREATHE!”
I woke up on a table; I had forgotten how to breathe. Dr. Wong was standing over me, looking panicked. I couldn’t possibly be his first patient who didn’t know how to take in air with part their lung cut out, and after remembering drowning and before anything else, even before before I thought about what it would mean to my children to maybe grow up without a mother—-my son only ten, and my daughter fifteen—-what I thought about first was Paris.
That I would never see Paris.
So here I was, not yet knowing if this cancer that had taken part of my lung had spread, had made its way into my lymph nodes and bones; not yet knowing if the phone call to my children, the children I had just moved to Hawaii a year before, would be one of goodbye, of I am sorry to leave so soon, of please get on a plane to Boston, please make that 5,000 mile trip to see me again, one more time. See, cancer is that kind of thief, and this cancer, this shocking and most unexpected cancer in this lung, now taken/removed/cut-out, it crawled into my bed at night while I was asleep, an uninvited and unwelcome adversary, and now I am on a metal table, and breathing is a memory.
Mindy Solomon and stolen kisses with Bobby Savage back then, raiding boys’ bunks and the hot summer sun of 1971 sleepaway camp in southern New Hampshire, and all that would be ahead, desire-passion-heartbeat, and now Dr. Wong ordering me to BREATHE!, but I can’t; and in that nanosecond between my life flashing before my eyes and that first breath… the second first breath of my life… that excruciating, impossible, deeply sad yet ecstatic first breath that came with the possibility of rebirth, reawakening, of loss that would be transformed into abundance, the sliding glass door that opened in that moment and there would be exquisite gifts; but in that nanosecond between drowning and who I would become, later, that began with that first breath on that table that day, there was only Paris.
The Big Island Writers’ Workshop heads to Boston! (Registration open)
Shades Of Blue A new anthology, edited by Amy Ferris, is now available from Seal Press. I’m proud to have a piece in this important book about sadness, depression, and suicide.
The Big Island Writers’ Workshop in Carmel, my first workshop in Northern California, was wonderful. What a beautiful place to write and what an open and talented group of women who dove in! Looking forward to setting a date to return. Thank you, Jill and Akemi, for hosting this event. And Jill, for opening your lovely home to our group of writers.
I drove my daughter to the airport just before 5:00 am this morning, in the dark. On the way back from Kona to Waimea the sun was beginning to rise and the juxtaposition of ocean and seemingly endless black lava against our stunning mountains – Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai – that were shrouded in early morning mist, was one of the most breathtaking sights imaginable. Hawaii is a place of almost unbearable beauty, especially at sunrise and sunset. The lava becomes more vivid and otherworldly against the Pacific Ocean, which revealed itself to be that intense island turquoise as the sun rose higher in the sky, and the mountains hovering over all if it were the great gift. Gratitude for such remarkable beauty…
A favorite moment of the day. I walked into the post office and a little girl – maybe five years old – screamed out, “Mommy, it’s THE WITCH! I thought she was dead!” and she hid behind her mother. (They obviously came to see “Into The Woods” over the weekend.) And here’s the BEST response ever. Instead of her mother saying, “That was just a show and she’s an actress who played the witch,” she said, “But remember? She lost all her magical powers when she became young and beautiful, so she doesn’t cast spells anymore. It’s fine.” And the little girl actually came up to me and said, “So are you a nice witch now?” It killed me. I said, in keeping with Sondheim’s theme that ‘nice is different than good’ (Chuck Hudson, this one was for you) — “Well maybe not nice. But good.” 🙂 I love that this mother kept the magic of theater alive for her daughter. So Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Witch are all in place and that little girl wasn’t scared after that. She skipped out of the post office, even after encountering a witch.
Waking Up in Hawaii (part two)
Yes, Hawaii woke me up.
I left my happy New York life to move to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from anyone I knew and everything I loved, and I was fine. Better than fine.
It’s not only about place, I learned, it’s the tapestry we weave wherever we land. I discovered, in Hawaii, that the weaving can be rich and complex with new colors, maybe even more vibrant than colors I had experienced before, IF I said yes to the work of creating. If I said yes to putting one foot in front of the other and moving ahead, not focusing on what was left behind.
Not long after moving here I discovered that I had lung cancer. Instead of dying I woke up. That is, in part, because this place, the place nicknamed the “healing island,” held me in its black lava arms and rocked me back to health. That embrace was a deep healing. But there was more. Joseph Canpbell’s words, “Follow your bliss” became a reality… this was something I said to my daughter so many times in her life that she recently told me she wants it tattooed on her arm in my handwriting. I agreed and said that I would do the same, but in her handwriting.
Since then, life AFTER cancer has been all about waking up. Waking up to what I eat and a commitment to macrobiotics. Eating food I could grow, if I grew food. Luckily there are local organic farmers who do just that. I don?t eat meat or dairy. No processed sugar. No hard alcohol. And I feel good. I feel fit and I?m leaner than I was when I moved here. I sleep less because my body’s not digesting food all night. I’m literally awake.
Finding artistic collaborators whose work thrills me and creating with them — that came out of waking up in Hawaii. And that work had to be NOW, there would be no concession to later. Looking cancer in the eye is the loudest wakeup call and the reason that now happens before it used to.
Hawaii woke me up and the words took on much greater importance. And then people, mostly women, started walking into rooms and writing words based on prompts I create. And the words are hard and deep and funny and poignant and urgent and, for me, they are everything. And then we all wake up, all of us, because we are writing our truth and listening to others’ truths in this process I think of as mining for stories. Someone recently called it an excavation, this digging for our stories. I agree. But I associate mining with gold, and to me the stories are worth everything. So I like mining.
There are stages to sing on and I do, with gratitude beyond words for a voice that can produce sound that people seem to want to listen to, and there are others to move around on a stage, which brings such pleasure to me and hopefully to the people who come to watch the shows I direct. And there was a theatre to rescue and I was part of that. A point of pride.
There were also two children to raise and that work is done. Off they go, this week, to college and grad school… one 2,500 miles away from Hawaii and the other 7,500 miles away. And now there will be Hawaii without them and waking up, even in the morning, will mean something else.
We wake up constantly until the day we no longer wake up. But it takes work and a conscious decision to live an awake life. I owe a lot to this island — the scene of this awakening.
And this site is where I’ll share what I do.