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.
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.
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.