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Doing Good

12 Feb

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When the world seems to be falling apart, it is comforting to see the people you love trying to put it back together. One of those people is my son.

He’s a quiet kid. He’s shy and unassuming and once you are lucky enough to get to know him, he’s hilarious and kind and genuine. He still needs to work on the regular teenage stuff like being nicer to his brothers or answering me in a more patient tone. But all in all, he’s a truly fine human being and I am honored to have the privilege of being his mom.

In the fall, my son participated in a Midnight Run. Together with his friends and our synagogue he collected necessary every day items we might take for granted: soap, pillows, a warm jacket. On a cold November night, my son and husband drove into New York City and handed out jackets to the homeless. They helped people find the right size coat, the color they preferred, and ultimately the jacket that would keep them the warmest. They handed out jackets until there were no more jackets to hand out. But there were still people who were cold.

A few weeks later, I saw a segment on the news about a company in Michigan called The Empowerment Plan that was making jackets that converted to sleeping bags. The labor hired to sew these jackets is sourced exclusively from homeless shelters. These women are trained and given skills that will hopefully allow them to find full time employment. It was an incredible story to behold. I told my son about the jackets and he began an online fundraiser via Crowdrise to raise $5240 (the cost of 50 jackets plus shipping to NY), so he could continue to help keep our city’s homeless a little warmer.

With the help of many friends and family, more than $6000 was raised allowing for the purchase of nearly 60 coats. And on a cold January night, our family and my parents loaded the jackets into two trucks and drove to Hebrew Union College in The Village to distribute the coats to those patronizing their soup kitchen.

As we unloaded the coats onto a table and started demonstrating them for the people there, a small crowd began to gather. A very tall man was the first person to take a coat, explaining how happy he was because he has not been able to find a warm jacket that fits him in years.

We met a man named Matteo who sleeps in his van and was grateful to now have some semblance of a bed. He marveled at the utility of the jacket and how it was an item fashioned for those in need with respect for those in need in mind. He thanked my son and began to cry.

When a woman named Fatima saw the jacket, she broke into a wide smile and laughter, confiding that this was something she could really use. Her joy was palpable. She took a jacket and returned 15 minutes later just to talk to my son.

“You did this? How did you do this?”

My son explained his fundraiser. Fatima began to cry.

“I can’t believe you did this. You’re only 16. Do you know what you’ve done?”

And then she asked him for a hug. And they embraced.

When the shift was over only 5 jackets remained which we donated to the soup kitchen. Several hours later, after eating dinner at a local restaurant, we started walking back to our car. On the way, we passed Hebrew Union College. Outside was a man in a lawnchair, laughing with his friends, and wearing one of the jackets we gave him earlier that night.

Things have certainly come full circle. To have begun the Midnight Run program in our synagogue and to have ended this coat drive in the basement of a seminary was a beautiful living brush stroke of tikkun olam: repairing the world.

And the world is indeed in need of repair.While the country’s delicate seams have been mercilessly ripped apart, small acts of kindness, like this one, are the thread we all need to sew us back together. Because regardless of where we live or what we own, people are people are people. And yes, you do things for other people. You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it because you can. You do it because you can make someone’s life better, even if it is just in the smallest way, like a giving a stranger a fresh bar of soap. But you also do it because it makes you feel better too. And it feels good to do good. It does.

My son may not always be the type who sits on my lap to hug me, or who holds my hand while I’m driving and rests his head on it, or who comes into my room to hug and kiss me as a study break. But I hope he is. I will never be too old to accept any of those expressions of love.

Soon my son will be going off to college. When he leaves the home in which he has grown up, I wonder if he is ready for what the world will throw at him. But mostly I want to know that he is a good person. That I am sending my best work, a really good human being, into the world. That he will love and be loved. That he will be kind. That he will help those who need it. And that he will be good. And he is.

My son is already repairing this world, doing great things, and giving back. He’s going to make his mark on this world. In fact, he already has.

An Open Letter To My Son

19 Mar

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My Sweet Son,

I know there are things you are anxious to try: things that your friends might be doing; things that are wrong. Please wait.

You may not realize it but you are still a child. You have your whole life ahead of you to do grown-up things. I know you may think you’re ready for these things. You are not. You only get one childhood. You should live it as a child.

I wonder if you also know how dangerous some seemingly innocuous things might be. Perhaps even lethal. There are multiple reasons why some activities have minimum legal age limits. One good reason is because your mind and body are not mature enough to handle them. You should respect that. And while we’re on the subject, you should respect girls too. Listen to what they say and remember to be kind always.

It is ok to say “no.” Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you are lesser than they because you won’t try something stupid. If you say no and that person gives you a hard time, you should lose them as a friend because they are not your “friend.” A true friend would never do that.

I know you are bound to make mistakes in life and it is my job to let you fail and make them. It is the only way you can learn. But you are too young to make some mistakes you may be contemplating. You are too young to pay the price of such errors. You are too young to learn these lessons. Trust me. I am your mom.

Most important, if you do make some wrong decisions, or if your friends do, your father and I will always be here. We respect honesty and will always have your best interests at heart. If for any reason you feel you or a friend is in jeopardy, please call us at once, even if you are unsure. I am more concerned about the safety of you or a friend than lecturing you on a rule you may have broken. I promise.

I’m not going to tell you about the innocent days of my youth when none of this existed and everyone just rode their bikes around until they left for college. That did not happen. There were plenty of ways for kids to get into trouble, just like there are now. And I’m not going to tell you about the car accidents, hospital admissions, and deaths of people I knew who made such decisions. They speak for themselves.

I’m just going to tell you that I get it. That I’ve been there.

Life is full of crossroads. No matter which ones you may reach, I am always here to guide you and to love you, even if you make wrong turns along the way. But please, do not make those turns just yet.

Love always,
Mom

The Soundtrack of My Life

30 Jan

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My father is singing Cat Stevens’ Moonshadow to me. I am 3 or 4 or 5 years old. I wonder about the limbless body singing until all the parts of him are gone and he is seemingly nonchalant, perhaps even grateful to be without eyes and a tongue. My father continues to sing the same song to me like a lullaby.

I am in a full body cast in a hospital. I am 6 years old. My mother is sitting, surrounded by sick children, with her ukelele, playing and singing Puff the Magic Dragon. I am proud and yet jealous. I do not want to share her with the rest of these patients. I want her to sing and wrap her oversized heart around only me.

I am in my Mustang convertible while Carole King’s Tapestry cassette plays on a loop. I am 17 years old. I am weeping. My boyfriend is going to college and every single song was written for me. I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, Home Again, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Where You Lead, Beautiful. My boyfriend makes several stops to say goodbye to friends while I wait for him in the passenger seat, disconsolate. He gets back in the car and gives me an inscribed locket I will wear until the picture inside is all rubbed out and he breaks my heart years later.

I am lost. I am 18 years old and without a sense of direction. I am listening to Van Morrison’s Moondance album. I am driving my car from Connecticut to New York and it is midnight. I finally find a commercial area where it feels safe enough to get out of the car and make a phone call. I call my father from a  pay phone. I beg him to rescue me. He tells me to find my way home and that it will be good for me. I get back in my car and blast “Caravan.” I circle who knows how much of the tri-state area before I pull into my parents’ driveway sometime after 2 am. I have found my way home.

I am standing amongst piles of boxes in my apartment in Brooklyn waiting for movers. I am 23 years old. The only thing not yet packed is my stereo. I am listening to Nanci Griffith CDs for hours as the movers have forgotten me. By the time they pick me up, I am distraught, fearing NYC condo regulations will forbid me from the late move and I will be temporarily homeless. Two men load up the packaged belongings comprising my life and offer me a ride uptown. I sit in the front seat of the movers’ truck as we drive up the FDR to my new home on East 81st. I lean my head against the window, listening to Nanci Griffith on my walkman, equally terrified and excited about this move. I dislike change even though this is a good one. My parents are waiting for me and it is all ok.

I am getting married. I am dancing with my husband to Ben Taylor’s version of The Beatles’ I Will. We are alone on the dance floor, moving in choreographed rhythm thanks to Ernesto of Arthur Murray’s East 86th Street studio. I can see him counting beats in his head as he leads me. We later break loose to The Emotions’ Best of My Love. We don’t yet know that both songs will feature prominently at the bar mitzvah of our first son.

I am in my apartment on East 75th Street. I am nearing the end of my 20s. I am pregnant with my first child. I am working from home for the day, listening to Counting Crows’ This Desert Life. My belly tightens and my son kicks and flutters every time this album plays. He has good taste. I know I will love him.

I am rocking in a glider in the bedroom of my baby boy. He is sleeping on my chest and I think I might never move. I sing him every song I know and love. It goes like this every night. Sweet Baby James, The Way You Look Tonight, Annie’s Song, An American Tune. I sing him Moonshadow and deposit him back into his crib. He tucks his legs beneath him, looks briefly at me, and goes back to sleep.

I am at the obstetrician’s office. I am alone. I am 7 weeks pregnant. My husband is traveling for business. For days I have had a premonition that my doctor will tell me he cannot find a heartbeat. The doctor squeezes jelly over my belly and after several minutes of searching, says “Lisa, I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.” I am even sorrier. Sorry to be right. Sorry to lose a baby I already loved. Sorry. I listen to Eva Cassidy’s cover of Fields of Gold over and over, weeping until I tell myself I have punished myself enough and I turn it off.

I am again rocking in a glider but I am in a new room in a new house beside two new babies to love. I sing them the same songs I sang to my first baby. I sing them Moonshadow. I put them into the same crib so they know each other’s presence.

It is my son’s 10th birthday. I am listening to the Circle Game. I cannot believe I am at the second verse. I do not know where the time has gone. I know I will be at the third verse in six short years. I am dragging my feet to slow the circles down, Joni Mitchell.

It is my birthday. 10,000 Maniacs’ These are the Days is playing on my desktop. We have just returned from dinner with my family and I am making my husband and sons dance with me in the kitchen. I will do this every year as long as they will. I turn up the music as high as it will go and watch my family in the reflection of the windows in my kitchen. They indulge me because it’s my birthday but I hope there is enough time in the song for them to feel how much music can lift you, how it can intoxicate you, how its joy is utterly contagious, how necessary it is to be in love with music: to let it infuse your heart, your mind, your soul. To let it literally play the soundtrack to your life.

Rewinding

14 Apr

There is that precise, definable moment in time when the record abruptly stops. When the ground trembles. When the carpet below you is yanked away like a magician removing a tablecloth. When your knees buckle. When your life freezes.

When you recall how lucky you were to have not yet experienced this moment, these words, this discovery. Five minutes ago, three weeks ago, six months ago, one year ago.

When you could literally pinpoint the exact moment everything was perfect. You watch your life like a movie, seeing the smiles on the faces of the people you love, rewinding the tape on scan mode until that exact night, hour, minute, second, until you stop and pause the image, envious of the innocent people in the frame, on the screen, all around you. Did you know then you had it so good? Did you breathe it in? Did you give thanks?

It is a common inclination to live in the moment. But sometimes it is so difficult just to live between them.

I am rewinding and pausing and resetting and giving thanks.