The healing power of play

Play. For kids it comes easily. But for adults it’s not something we do that often. When was the last time you played a game, acted in a skit or picked up some crayons?

It had been a long time since I had done any of these things—until I attended a contemplative retreat a few months ago. But that’s exactly what we did at the retreat. We played, we laughed, we relaxed—and something sacred happened. Continue reading

Sam’s story, Part 3

In many ways Sam Genirberg has the model American immigrant story. He came to the U.S. in 1948 with $50, earned $1.25 an hour at his first job in a warehouse and eventually started several successful businesses. He ran Moo’s, a popular ice cream parlor in Richmond, and then launched a real estate business, which he still manages today. Continue reading

Sam’s story: Part 2


Sam Genirberg has the distinction of being one of last living survivors of the Holocaust, or Shoah, as he prefers to call it. At age 94 he spends most of his days quietly in his El Cerrito house, filled with pictures of his family, including his wife, Rose, who passed away five years ago. She was also a survivor, having endured Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Continue reading

Sam’s story, Part 1

Sam Genirberg was a 17-year-old high school student when German troops invaded his home country, the Ukraine, in 1941. Little did he know that within a few months, the 12,000 Jews in his small town would be taken from the their homes and forced to live in a ghetto. Soon after they would be marched to pits outside of town and brutally murdered, part of the Nazi extermination of Jews. Continue reading

The Goodbye Year

Two weeks ago my younger son started his last year of high school. It’s hard to believe that at this time next year he’ll likely be off to college and our house will be an empty nest. My husband and I have spent the last 20 years nurturing and caring for our kids and in the blink of an eye, they’ll be gone. Continue reading

Word by word with my writing coach

I didn’t think working with a writing coach would be all that challenging. I thought I’d get inside tips on where to submit, general writing advice and editing that would garner quick results—lots of published pieces. How hard can this be?, I thought. I’ve been writing a blog for several years and I feel ready to put my work out there to other publications. Continue reading

Hitting a deer and other close encounters with the wild

Maybe, just maybe we wouldn’t have hit the deer if I hadn’t showed my husband the cool old hotel where I sometimes stay in Santa Rosa. If not for that 2-minute detour on our way home we may not have collided with the buck a half-hour later at 70 mph on the freeway.

The deer came out of nowhere. We were talking one minute, in the quiet bubble of my husband’s sleek grey Subaru. Then suddenly we saw the deer’s head, topped by impressive antlers, off to one side of our windshield. Our eyes locked for a split second. What was he doing there in the fast lane of the freeway? He was probably thinking the same thing as us.

The impact was swift. A loud couple of thuds reverberated against the front and side of the car as the deer’s body smashed against us. My husband instinctively veered to the right and pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. Fortunately, no other cars were around us at 10 pm. that night.

The car was badly damaged. Later our insurance would pay $10,000 to repair it. The deer didn’t survive. A highway patrol officer who pulled over told us he was lying in the median. We were practically in tears. “If I hadn’t showed you the hotel…” I said. “Or if we hadn’t spent five minutes talking in the car before we left…” We had just killed a living, breathing being.

On the way home we asked the tow truck driver if he sees many accidents like this. Yes, he said. Deers are nocturnal. I felt like I had just woken up from a dream, sitting high up in the middle seat of the tow truck between my husband and the driver.

I asked the driver about himself, just to get my mind off the deer. “Where are you from?” He told me he was from Petaluma and had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. “Thank you for your service,” my husband said. But the driver said nothing and kept talking. Living in the Bay Area was getting too expensive, he said. He planned to get a job as a guard at a correctional facility somewhere up north.

The driver didn’t have to, but he towed our car all the way home to Berkeley. “It’s a quiet night,” he said.

**

When I was a child, I had recurring dreams of entering the “deer cave” down the hill from our house. My brother and I had discovered that the deer had a sort of cave under a bunch of trees and bushes at the bottom of our property. The cave was always dark even when it was sunny and bright outside. You could tell the deer slept there by the matted circles of grass on the ground. I only looked in once and I was afraid to get near it again.

In my dream I would be playing in the yard and then get closer and closer to the cave. I would peer inside and all kinds of fearful things would be waiting for me. Not just deer, but other things I can’t now remember. I would wake up in a sweat. My fear wasn’t irrational. Once a deer had kicked my dog in the face and knocked two teeth out. I had a respect for these silent, mysterious creatures that roamed the hills.

**

Running into the deer south of Santa Rosa wasn’t the first time I’ve hit a deer. When I was 19 years old I was driving to my family’s house when a deer suddenly jumped out of the bushes on top of my car. He smashed the windshield, got stuck in the ski rack for a moment, twisting the metal, and then ran off into a neighbor’s yard. In a daze, I drove the next block home, tiny shards of glass speckling my face. When my mom came out to say hi, she gasped at the sight.

I had been returning from a pre-marital counseling session with my pastor and my soon-to-be husband. I have no recall of anything we talked about in that meeting or really any other meeting we had, but I’ll always remember the deer. I wondered if the deer had been OK. I was glad for the safety glass on my car. Every time I saw the twisted ski rack on top of the car I remembered the collision I had with something wild.

**

Some years ago a friend asked me if I had a spirit animal. I had never heard of this and didn’t even know what it meant, but I immediately responded: a deer. Maybe I am even a little like a deer. I tend to be quiet, an observer. I like to wander around hills. At night my brain is busy. I often remember my dreams and ruminate on them for days afterward.

Actually, my friend later explained, a spirit animal is more like a guide. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. In every encounter, deer—seemingly benign and gentle—have jolted me awake in some way. That time on the highway with my husband renewed our thankfulness for life, even as we grieved for the deer. When I ran into the deer when I was 19 it created a bonding moment with my mom. I could have walked down the aisle with a face full of scars but I didn’t.

Even my current battle with the urban deer in my neighborhood gives me some sense of adventure. In May I started spraying a concoction of garlic, cayenne pepper, eggs and water on the agapantha flowers in my front yard. These plants are supposed to be deer repellent, but the hungry deer around here eat them anyway. As soon as fat buds form at the end of each long stalk each spring, the deer nibble them off. I haven’t seen them bloom into big purple flowers for at least five years.

This year I decided to fight back and the spray worked. I felt slightly bad I ruined these plants for the deer but I also felt a little excited each morning when I found the buds still intact. Now all of the agapanthas are in full, bountiful bloom.

I haven’t seen any deer in my neighborhood for a while but two nights ago my son saw three coyotes in our yard. That both intrigued and worried me. They must be following the deer who come down from the hills. I won’t let my little dog out at night anymore.

We think we live in a controlled, tame environment, but nature—wild, fighting to survive, beautiful and fearsome—is just outside our door. How we react to these messengers from another world can teach us a lot about ourselves.

The day my sister entered my life

“Aloha, it’s so great to meet you,” Regina said as I stepped off the runway in sunny Kona. Hawaii.

We gave each other a hug.

“It’s nice to meet you too, after all this time,” I said.

I had been anticipating this moment for 20 years. That’s when I first found out that I had a half-sister. I had been adopted as a baby and had never known anything about my birthparents or siblings until I turned 30. At that time my birthparents, who had gone separate ways, each contacted me and we exchanged a few letters. My birthmother had never had any more children but my birthfather had gotten married and had a daughter and a son. More than 10 years passed until I finally decided to meet my birthparents, who are both in Chicago. Then another eight years passed until I had the opportunity to meet my sister, who lives in Hawaii.

The thing that surprised me most about Regina was her voice. We became friends on Facebook about eight years ago and I’ve seen plenty of pictures. I knew we looked a little bit alike and I knew she had lots of animals, including pet pigs. I also saw photos of her tattooed arms, which feature images of her animals surrounded by flowers. Her latest tattoo is quite attractive, stretching just below her neck from shoulder to shoulder like a necklace. You need to look carefully to see her pigs Baron and Boyd ensconced in a hearts and flowers.

Regina’s voice was lighter and higher than I expected. Somehow I thought this woman, who proudly announces her veganism and animal activism online, would have a lower voice and a brusque manner. Instead, she sounded kind, even when I ordered a sandwich with bacon at the lunch place she picked out.

“I hope I’m not offending you,” I said as I realized with horror what I had done.

“Oh, not all,” she said. “My husband eats everything.”

Still, I couldn’t eat the bacon when it came. I couldn’t eat much at all. I was so focused on our conversation. As I listened to Regina talk about her family and growing up in Chicago I felt drawn into another world, a world I may have lived if things had gone differently. My birthfather, Frank, had told me that his Italian Catholic family wanted him to keep me. They were family people. But he and my birthmother were only teenagers and they weren’t married. At that time unmarried pregnant girls were sent to homes where they would live until they gave birth.

When I met Frank for the first time, eight years ago, he drove me to the neighborhood just outside of Chicago where he grew up. He pointed out his high school and the tidy red brick home where his family lived. It was tight quarters, he said, with parents and five kids living in that little house.

I mentioned this to Regina and she said it had been tough for Frank. His parents worked hard and demanded a lot from the kids. If they left for the day they would give all the kids a long list of chores to do. For Regina, however, her grandparents’ house was filled with great memories of Italian Sunday dinners. She spent lots of time in the basement with her cousins around an old-fashioned jukebox. I couldn’t help but imagine myself in that setting. I grew up in California, far away from my cousins. Although we got along well, we saw each other once a year at best. And we didn’t have a strong tie to our countries of origin. Would I be a different person today with that kind of family dynamic?

For Regina, the tight family culture was somewhat constraining. She didn’t want to solely identify with one culture, one people. She dreamed of going to New Mexico. She attended college there, studied archeology and took a class on weaving for fun. She ended up getting a job as a weaver for six years. Later she moved to Idaho and New York. She became a vet tech. Then she moved to Hawaii. She never returned to Chicago, much to the dismay of her parents.

***

“Your voice, it sounds just like my aunt in Wisconsin,” said Sandy, my birthmother, on our first phone call eight years ago.

Perhaps it was comforting to my birthmother that I had something in common with her family. I did live in the Midwest until age 8 and then I returned there for four years for college. So perhaps I do sound something like a woman in Wisconsin.

Other than the familiar voice, however, Sandy and I had few obvious traits in common. When we eventually met later that year I realized she had a hard edge about her. She had grown up very poor, with an absent father. She had to live in a rented garage during high school, when she dated Frank. She was a hard worker and had always been independent, without a spouse. She was a successful businessperson. Now she had two homes. She sent me pictures of them. One in Arizona. The other in Chicago in a ritzy high-rise tower. She had platinum blond hair and called herself “Blondie.” I liked her spunk.

As I recounted some of this to Regina though, I felt sad. Sad that my birthmother had to grow up poor. Sad that her pregnancy was taboo. Sandy told me that as soon as I was born, I was whisked away. Her own mother never said a word about me for the rest of her life. It was hard to repeat these words—for the rest of her life.

“I could have kept you. It could have worked out,” Sandy had told me when we met for lunch that day eight years ago at the top of the Hancock building in Chicago.

I sensed defiance in her voice. I wondered if things really could have worked out. It would have been a different life for me, for sure.

***

Why do people seek out their long-lost family members? Frank was the one who initially decided to find me. He couldn’t remember the name of the adoption agency that handled my case so he called Sandy, whom he hadn’t seen in years. They reconnected and had the agency send me a letter asking if I would accept their letters. When I said yes, I quickly received a greeting card from Sandy that said, “One day I knew I’d find you” on the outside. I wondered how she had found such a perfect card.

I received a cassette tape from Frank with a small note that explained he wasn’t much of a writer so he recorded himself talking. His voice sounded calm and quiet. He spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing each word. He told me about his work as a truck mechanic and about his family. He said he had thought of me often through the years and wanted to make sure I was OK. I wrote letters back to each of them telling them about my life and my family.

The adoption agency told me it was rare for a birthfather to seek out his adopted child. I felt honored that I was one of the few to get this attention. I certainly wasn’t lacking in love from my adoptive parents. They are among the most loving people I know. I grew up with an abundance of care and support. I have a close relationship with my brother, who is also adopted. However, I was touched that my birthfather, and then my birthmother, would reach out to me with interest and care.

There’s a deeper story, however, which I only learned from Regina. At the time Frank began to look for me he was undergoing some soul-searching. Regina had moved far away for college and wasn’t returning. His adolescent son was causing waves. Frank wondered if he had done something wrong. He hoped finding me would show him that he had done something right.

“Finding you and seeing you were happy gave Dad a lot of peace,” Regina said.

I’ve still only seen Sandy once and Frank a few times on trips to Chicago. We exchange Christmas cards some years but we don’t talk on the phone. I see now that for both my birthparents the idea of connecting with me really was about alleviating their doubts and fears, not becoming close friends. Or perhaps they are giving me respectful distance.

After lunch, Regina took us to her house. It could have been any nice house in a quiet subdivision on the mainland. But hers had a mango tree outside, a banana tree in the back—and 11 dogs, 11 cats and two pet pigs. The dogs and pigs had their own rooms downstairs complete with a big-screen TV and as soon as we arrived, Regina let a few upstairs, who promptly greeted us with wet licks. Then she let them all out in the back to romp around. She’s known on the big island as the person to call if you find a lost animal. Most of her animals are rescues. She and her husband Mario would like to move out to the country where they could have more land and more animals.

Later, on our way out of the neighborhood, Regina stopped to greet some friends. “Hey,” she yelled out the car window. “I want you to meet someone. This is my sister.”

Her friends looked surprised. Maybe she had never told them about me. I was pleased she had introduced me as her sister.

Soon the sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean and my husband and I had to catch the little island hopper plane back to Maui, where we were staying. We had drinks with Regina and Mario at a seaside bar in Kona before our flight. Mario, who is originally from Mexico and has dreadlocks down to his waist, talked a lot about his time living in California and his bold move to Hawaii. He told us his dream to someday run an orphanage and senior center on the island.

“Well, you’re already running an orphanage in a way,” joked my husband, referring to their menagerie of pets.

We all laughed.

I felt I had fulfilled my own dream that day. I had never had a sister in my life until that moment.

Postscript: Shortly after we left Hawaii, Kilauea began erupting. Fortunately Regina lives on the other side of the island. However, she has been involved nonstop in rescuing the many animals lost or at risk because of the volcano. She’s taken in more animals and found homes for others. She’s an inspiration and I hope to see her on the mainland next time she’s here.

Embracing Ordinary time

Summer is one of my favorite times of year. I love the sun, the long days and the blooms in my garden. But perhaps the reason I like it most is that there are no big holidays to get ready for. In the church calendar, we are in “ordinary time” and this long stretch from Pentecost to Advent is a time when we can focus on our “ordinary” days. I can ask, how do I spend my time when I don’t have the extra obligations of the busier times of year? How can I live with more joy and a balanced rhythm of work and play?

One way to do this is by “savoring.” We all know what it means to savor our food. It means appreciating the smells, colors and textures, lingering at each bite, and enjoying the taste. It had never occurred to me we could “savor” other experiences. Perhaps ordinary time is a time to savor the ways God has met me in the first part of the year. In my times of prayer or meeting with my spiritual director I can recall and savor the special moments from the last six months, like the time a friend was baptized or my trip to visit my older son. I feel more joy when I remember the sights and sounds of these events.

I am also learning to value silence. Most days I try to take a long walk in my neighborhood. It’s easy to fill that walk with noise—music or a podcast. Those are not necessarily bad things. But I’d like to experiment a bit with silent walking. I notice more of my surroundings when I am unplugged. I make space for creative thinking and maybe even prayer.

There is still work to be done in ordinary time. Sometimes it feels quite, well, ordinary. There is shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, planning trips. We all have to do a lot of routine and often boring tasks. In my better moments, though, I remember the example of Brother Lawrence, the 17th century monk who found peace in washing dishes in the monastery kitchen. He was a believer that we can experience God not just in “spiritual” activities like church but in our everyday, menial tasks.

Many contemporary authors write about this idea of experiencing God in the ordinary. Tish Harrison Warren explores this concept in her lovely book “Liturgy of the Ordinary, Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.” She breaks down a typical day, from waking up and getting dressed to losing her keys and checking e-mail, and shows how each activity is not so different from the elements of a Sunday worship service. Waking up, for example, is like baptism and “learning to be beloved.” Losing keys is like confession (because she realizes how angry and frustrated she can get by such a small thing). I particularly like her “fighting with her husband.” She compares that to passing the peace and the “everyday work of shalom.”

All of the small, ordinary events of our lives can be sacramental, says Harrison Warren, meaning that God can meet us in the “earthy, material world where we dwell.” I hope to reread this book this summer and pay more attention to the rhythms of my daily life.

This summer, unlike most summers, my family has no big travel plans. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling like I can embrace this ordinary time even more fully. Perhaps this is the summer to appreciate where I live, where God has placed me. I’m eager to attend the outdoor theater production in a neighboring town and I look forward to exploring parts of the city I’ve never been to. I know there are projects at home too. We will be putting a new roof on our house sometime in the next few months, and I’m mindful it will require patience and a heart oriented to thankfulness. I also appreciate this summer as a pause before my son’s senior year of high school, a year that will be filled with a lot of busyness as he prepares college applications and graduation requirements.

As I write this it is almost the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where I live. It’s a great time to practice savoring. In particular I remember past summers when I was traveling in some beautiful places. I especially remember several trips to Northern Spain, where, because of its geography, the sun didn’t set until nearly 10 pm. I’ll never forget the lively nighttime streets, the delicious tapas and paella, and our rosy cheeks from a day at the beach. I’d like to be back there again, but the memories are almost just as good.

What can you savor during this ordinary time? How can you build more silence into your days? And how can you be aware of the sacramental in the ordinary, everyday tasks of life? A friend of mine recently recounted how she had been gone for three weeks and when she returned a sunflower in her yard had grown about five feet! This reminded me that in this season of light and ordinariness amazing things are happening all around. This season, void of big holidays, can be the perfect time to notice the holy in the everyday and find reasons to orient ourselves toward joy and peace. We just might need more joy and peace in the busier times of year.

Getting past writer’s block and other thoughts on writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s block. Since deciding to be more disciplined about writing, I’ve suffered my share of this. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, staring at a blank screen and waiting for the words to come. You know lots of people experience it, but at that moment, when you face it, you feel like the only person in the world who is stuck. You feel isolated. It’s a lonely feeling.

I used to only write when I felt inspired, when I already had an idea forming and I could just sit down and let the words flow. Now, though, I make myself write everyday, whether I feel inspired or not. Often I do have a kernel of an idea. But many times, I freeze up. I can’t develop the kernel. I don’t have enough to say. I switch topics or simply stare at what I’ve got and think for a long time.

Sometimes I avoid the discomfort of writer’s block by avoiding writing altogether. I’m pretty good at that. Today, for instance, I found all sorts of things to do instead of sit at my desk. I started a load of laundry. I picked up the house. I noticed my bowl of lemons and remembered the recipe my sister-in-law gave me to make preserved lemons. I hunted for the old recipe and made a shopping list. I finally sat down at my desk and answered some e-mails. Then I got hungry. I had to eat. How could I use up the asparagus and noodles in my refrigerator? I threw them together on the stove with some cherry tomatoes, smoked salmon and butter sauce. I was feeling like I had accomplished a lot—but I hadn’t written a word.

When I first decided to write more I cut back on my hours at work and pledged to dedicate that time to writing. Surely I would be churning out lots of great pieces! Instead I ran into a wall of writer’s block. I was trying to write was about my recent travels to Guatemala. It had been life changing and full of adventure but I discovered I couldn’t convey the experience the way I wanted and I was frustrated. After two weeks of tweaking, I had written an accurate summary of the trip but something was missing. I was so concerned in getting the big picture right that I forgot some of the rich details—the taste of the juicy mangos the village women gave us, the bump of the bus ride, and the odd juxtaposition of so many things, like the villagers’ cellphones hanging from their handmade woven belts. I would write the piece differently now—and maybe I will.

I’m realizing more and more that good writing takes time. All creative work involves patience and attention. Meanwhile, other kinds of work bring more instant rewards—and that’s alluring. I worked at a bookstore for almost three years. I enjoyed helping customers find the book they wanted so desperately they couldn’t even wait for Amazon to deliver it. Either that or they came specifically to support their local bookstore. Then I would ring up their sale. I loved working the cash register. I always felt like a kid who was playing store, as though I was handling fake money. I enjoyed shelving new books fresh out of the box. I even enjoyed gift wrapping books, from carefully measuring out the paper from our big roll to affixing ribbons and a gold sticker. At the end of my shift, I saw tangible results. With writing, I don’t always get to see a neatly wrapped package at the end of the day. I’m learning to be satisfied with that.

The most challenging thing about the kind of writing I’m doing is that nobody is the boss but me. I have to set my own goals. Only I know if I’ve wasted time surfing the internet or shopping online or reorganizing my closets. I’ve crossed paths with many creative types this past year and one thing I know for sure is that this work involves discipline. You have to show up and submit to the process, anticipating that writer’s block or lack of inertia is all part of it.

For me discipline involves a bit of hocus-pocus. I once knew a woman writing her dissertation who wore a special hat whenever she sat down to write. I don’t have a hat but instead I set up a schedule and an inviting space. I try to sit down to write at the same time everyday. I keep a notebook with two to-do lists: one with my writing goals and one with my other tasks. I tell myself I can’t work on those other tasks until after I write. Various rituals encourage this: hot coffee at my desk, a clean workspace and a pad of lined paper for jotting notes. I try my hardest to protect this time. Most days this works; other times it doesn’t.

I marvel at writers like Mark Twain who could write eight or ten hours a day with barely an interruption. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point—I’m not even sure I want that. What I have discovered though, is that writing leads to more writing. Many writers talk about how they feel a compulsion to write every day. They can’t live without it. The more I write, the more I understand that. Writer’s block aside, the writing process is an exciting experience of discovery. You discover new ideas you didn’t even know you had or had never formally stated. That can be intoxicating. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.

I recently read writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” She proposes that ideas live in the universe independently of humans. An idea might decide to visit you at a certain juncture in your life and if you are ready for it, you can work with it. If you’re not ready, it will find another “home.” She illustrates this with a story about how she once tried to write a book about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert worked on the book for several years but got sidelined by personal issues and put the project aside. Then Gilbert met writer Ann Patchett. After getting to know each other, Gilbert eventually learned that Patchett was working on a new novel. And what is the novel about? It’s a novel about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert is astounded to learn that her idea had migrated to Patchett! Patchett’s book became the bestselling novel “State of Wonder.”

I’m not sure I fully believe Gilbert’s idea that ideas are independent. But I’d like to. It adds to the mystery of this whole process. It also reinforces the concept that we are all intertwined and connected in powerful ways that we can’t even see. Our experiences and interactions with others become like an elixir we can spill out on the page. Our words, in turn, then influence the next person that reads them and we never quite know the outcome.

Creative work demands not only discipline, but courage. I need to believe that I have something important to say. I have something original to add to the large body of material already out there. Writer’s block often creeps in when I’m feeling doubtful and shy. I need to look writer’s block in the face and say, “I don’t believe you. I’m going to write anyway. This may not be a masterpiece, but it’s good enough.”

How do you face creative blocks? I’m always eager to hear how other writers or creative types work and think. Where do you get inspiration? How do you stay disciplined? Do you talk to other writers? Do you talk to yourself? For me the process, in all its meandering mysterious ways, is almost as interesting as the product itself.

When I worked at the bookstore, I always enjoyed hearing famous writers come in and talk about their writing process. None of them said it was easy. I take heart, knowing even the best struggle and have their good days and bad days. I know that all of this is part of the larger process, a process I’m only beginning to understand.