And then your son’s head shows up in this picture. Just his head, with his body buried in the sand, on a day he was in Hawaii last month with his childhood friends, before he had to leave to go back to college sooner than you wanted him to. Your son who turned twenty-one earlier this month but still likes to play, like this, and after you stop laughing you realize that you hope he never loses that sense of play because he works really hard… often seems to take on too much… and looking at this, this photo that fills you with love for your boy, both of your children’s lives flash in front of your eyes… did they have good childhoods, did you give them everything they needed to survive in the world? Especially in the world, now. And then you think about the joy of being buried up to your neck in the sand, and how happy he is here, something simple, even silly, like this, and somehow captured in a picture, and you have the strong sense, at least in this moment, that all is well. For today, it is.
Something extraordinary at LAX today… (writing this on the plane). I was at the gate, waiting to get on my plane to Portland. Flights to two different cities were boarding on either side of the Portland fight. A toddler who looked to be eighteen or so months old was having a total meltdown, running between the seats, kicking and screaming, then lying on the ground, refusing to board the plane (which was not going to Portland). His young mom, who was clearly pregnant and traveling alone with her son, became completely overwhelmed… she couldn’t pick him up because he was so upset, he kept running away from her, then lying down on the ground, kicking and screaming again. The mother finally sat down on the floor and put her head in her hands, with her kid next to her still having a meltdown, and started crying.
Then, this gorgeous thing (I’m crying just writing this)… the women in the terminal, there must have been six or seven of us, not women who knew each other, approached and surrounded her and the little boy and we knelt down and formed a circle around them. I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to the little boy… one woman had an orange that she peeled, one woman had a little toy in her bag that she let the toddler play with, another woman gave the mom a bottle of water. Someone else helped the mom get the kid’s sippy cup out of her bag and give it to him. It was so gorgeous, there was no discussion and no one knew anyone else, but we were able to calm them both down, and she got her child on the plane.
Only women approached. After they went through the door we all went back to our separate seats and didn’t talk about it… we were strangers, gathering to solve something. It occurred to me that a circle of women, with a mission, can save the world.
I will never forget that moment.
I learned something on Friday, on my way from LA to Portland. We’re so hungry for kindness right now that a simple sharing of my airport experience… some of us surrounding a mother and child who needed help… has been spoken back to me in a way that has really taken me by surprise. I’m deeply humbled that 10 thousand people shared my post and 35 thousand people liked it. Thank you for all the eyes on that story. I’m going to move forward knowing that kindness, that gathering to solve something for another human being, makes all the difference… is an antidote to the chaos we’ve been experiencing. And on that day it began with the women.
When you meet me I wonder if you notice that I am new. I am something other than I was, someone other than I was in this room before. The last time it was leaving. I was leaving this room and starting again – in a new place. With different colors and smells and ocean. Even a different ocean.
As a girl I sat on the beach wall above the gray/slate blue Atlantic. Cold. Enormous expanse of that color. And the jetties… unforgiving.
“Don’t go out on the jetties, Bethy!” my father warned me. “That’s where so and so drowned. You can never anticipate the undertow. Not in Boston. Not from the jetties…”
So I sat on that wall: neutral-colored, crumbling, graffiti-covered, “Dana & Dominick 4 eva,” and I watched the jetties, imagining a young person, a kid, like me, going out on a dare and getting sucked under. Instantly. Without a chance to remember or regret what they might have become had they not made that choice. Walking barefoot over sharp shells and disintegrated sea urchins, before the wave swept them away.
I knew, sitting on that wall, that I had drowned in a past life. Images of a boat with sails traveling from somewhere, Eastern Europe maybe, or Africa? I experienced that sensation of drowning, being engulfed by that gray/slate blue cold Atlantic. Quietly, with no one looking or sometimes not quietly, holding on to a piece of driftwood or the remnant of a sail, torn in the going down.
The act of going down.
Not as quick as the undertow of the jetty, but quick enough. Being engulfed, lungs filling with salt and cold, and of course, water.
That’s what I imagined at eleven or twelve, sitting on my private wall in Winthrop, wondering how long the Atlantic would let me live, would spare me that.
And then I left. To the Pacific. Turquoise, aqua, black and green sand beaches, or white – not gray. Rich, vibrant and even stronger, louder than the Atlantic. No Jetties but waves, big waves that can wash me onto the shore, on a boogie board probably meant for someone younger. But I need that ride, that thrill, for ten seconds, or thirty. Especially now. Holding my son’s hand as he instructs me on the art of staying on the wave.
“Mom! Turn around… here it comes, go! Go now mom! Don’t miss it!”
I ride in on that wave with my son and his friend Brian or Casey or Andrew. I am the mom on the boogie board, trying to eek out more time. Trying to ride over what happened. Trying to stay with my boy before the Hapuna Beach waves – angry in winter, unpredictable – before they pull us apart and I am pushing against the current to get back to my son.
“Sean! You’re too close to the rock!” I call out. But he doesn’t hear me and I am there again. A girl on a wall. Imagining going under. Salt in the lungs, water, disappearing – although this time it’s my son, not me, whom I can’t save.
But this is my fantasy, my illusion. And there he is, of course, throwing himself on the board as he and his friend Brian or Casey or Andrew try to outdo each other, to get on the wave first, to make it all the way to the sand.
This is where I was going when I was last in this room. To those waters. And I am here now…no ocean today, but again gray/slate/cold. And I am new. Different. Changed. Can you see that when you meet me? Do you know who I was before?
With that journey came new dangers, new falls, a new kind of drowning, but not one that I imagined, not even a little. Not one that my dad could have warned me about as I sat on that wall back then, contemplating my demise.
“Don’t go out on the jetties, Bethy! You’ll get sucked under…”
Not anything I could have imagined.
But here I am. Returned. New wings. My elbows are wings, you said. Yes. I can imagine that. I wear wings on my neck. A phoenix, given to me by Silvia, a survivor. A new Silvia, from this ocean.
“The phoenix rose again,” she said, when she put it in my hand. “I never take mine off,” she said.
Do you see that about me when you meet me? Maybe not. But it’s there. Under my scarf, against my neck. Ready for flight. To rise above the slate blue gray the turquoise black and green. To start again.
To be new.
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 take place 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.
In Hawaii, one year ago, the Fire Goddess Pele spoke loudly, demanding to be heard. Pele reminded us of her power as molten lava made an agonizingly slow journey towards Pahoa… into Pahoa. Poor unassuming Pahoa, that just wanted to be left alone, clearly wanted to be left alone, in the middle of nowhere, on an already remote island. Pahoa… a place of locals, hippies, Hawaiians, real Hawaiians, not transplanted mainlanders likes me. Authentic off-the-beaten-path Pahoans, who found themselves on World News Tonight because Pele decided to take back the land and Pahoa was in the way. And it was nothing against Pahoa itself, of course it wasn’t. The Pahoans claimed they were honored that Pele chose them… set her black coal eyes on them. They welcomed the Goddess of Fire; they relinquished their property, their homes, and their schools to her. Through tears, they gave it all back. They said it on the local news, at town meetings, and on CNN. They gave it all back to the Goddess.
“Let’s divert the lava!!” a politician said at a town meeting back then. “Let’s divert its course. Protect Pahoa! Save Pahoa!”
Ironically it was the Pahoans themselves who said no to this plan, this ridiculous notion that one can try to divert or at all control the flow of lava… lava that crept across fields and roads on its slow journey towards Pahoa, broke down fences, entered homes… the lava — an invader, wanting only to make itself known. It was in no rush, no rush at all. It took 123 days for the lava to make its way into a private property.
“The lava has entered its first dwelling” someone who was there said. “Pray for us. Pray for Pahoa. Pray for Pele to go around us.”
But only Pele herself that make that decision. To burn or spare. To salvage or decimate. We all watched the trajectory of the lava. We watched it crawl on its black hands and knees, destroying everything in its path, turning green into ash, pouring toxic fumes into our already VOG-filled air, creating a sideshow that became a national spectacle. And there was nothing anyone could do to stop it, divert it, or contain it. Pele was taking back the land, beginning with a place where she is honored – the ultimate form of control. She was not attacking outsiders – the resorts or the multi-million dollar homes of Hualalai… no, she began with her own people, those who offered themselves to her, their Goddess.
So we watched, helpless, as Pele rolled through, reminding us that this is how Hawaii began. With lava. Black Sand. Volcanic eruption. A Goddess and her sister, battling for a place to land, and Pele, victorious, chose the Big Island. Pele set her sights on OUR island, and maybe we’ve been negligent, maybe we stopped caring or honoring, maybe we turned our back on an old woman on the street, an old woman asking for assistance of some sort… a sandwich, a few pennies, shelter. They say that Pele appears to us in the form of an elder. Do not turn your back when she comes to you, do not say no, and most definitively, do NOT walk by, ignoring her. Ah, but that’s another story, for later. The story of Pele in disguise…
And so, a year ago today, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Pele, The Volcano Goddess, reclaimed the land, returning it, or at least as much of it as she wanted, to what it once was… restructuring, destroying, recreating it in her own image. Of course, we must destroy to break down. It was biblical, it was from past lifetimes, it was familiar in its fierceness; it was the Mother’s voice – Medea – sacrificing her children so that Jason’s betrayal of her would be avenged.
I live on an island that periodically destroys itself to be reborn in the image of its Goddess. The Goddess of fire. Reborn, this last time, at the expense of a small town called Pahoa, an innocent whose only crime was that it sat itself down in the path of Pele and her volcano. And Pele doesn’t have companions.
Now, we can only stand back, in awe of lava and fire, of Goddesses who were maybe ignored or passed over or not honored. We can only stand back and let Pele take what she feels is rightfully hers, as we witness the ultimate power of The Feminine, the power of a Goddess who gives… and takes back. We can only stand back and witness, with deepest reverence, the power of Pele.
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)
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.