Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blog has moved!

My dear readers,
I wanted to let you know that I moved my blog over to my new website. You can now find it on
I have not yet quite figured out how to have people sign up to receive the blog via email, but hopefully this will come soon! For now, you will have to check periodically if you want to see new posts.
Hugs and thank you for following me for the year and a half I've had my blog over here!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Leaping out of Loneliness: Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

When I got divorced, one of my friends suggested that I now had a golden opportunity to meet my real self. "As an adult you’ve known yourself only inside a relationship," she said. "Now is the time to get to know the true Sigal."

I followed her advice and spent five years trying to get to know the me-without-the distraction-of-a-man, and let me tell you, the me-without-the-man is the exact same me: confused, yearning for love, and eager to please. I found no secret me, because even without a man, my life was full of relationships, relationships with my kids, dogs, parents, friends, and even with my own ever-present desire for a relationship. I searched for five years, and finally found myself in the spot I had never left, because the truth was that I wanted to love, and I wanted to be loved, and that was in essence who I am.

I was thinking of my years alone as I read Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ wonderful romance, Natural Born Charmer. The novel follows two characters who choose aloneness. Blue is a nomad painter. Having been raised by a chain of foster parents chosen by her absent mother, Blue prefers not to get attached to anyone. She is safest on her own. Dean is a famous quarterback. He had been raised by an addict mother who was often absent and a father who refused to acknowledge him as his own. Flings Dean does. Settling down with one woman? No.

The motivation of romance characters is often to find love and to belong, and their conflict is the belief that love and belonging cannot happen to them (there is always a “because”). This is also true for Dean and Blue. Trusting each other with their hearts requires a seemingly impossible forgiveness, courage, and letting go. “I’m crazy about you,” Blue says at one point, “but I don’t fall in love.”

Dean and Blue meet in the land of fictional dream, but they are drawn together because they are both lonely and alone.The real them was not waiting to be found on a solo road, but instead blossomed through their interaction and willingness to take a leap of faith and fall in love.

Like Dean and Blue, I believe that we humans belong together. We are creatures of love, touch, and sharing, and we ought not to be alone. There is too much aloneness in our world, too many people who live their lives without getting even a hug a day, without feeling accepted or cherished by anyone else.

Sometimes people start talking to me in the street or the supermarket, and my first reaction is to walk away, back into my “normal” life. Then I tell myself: maybe this person just wants the spark of having connected with another human being today. And I try to smile, and be polite, and later, regretfully, walk away.

Dean started talking to Blue when she walked down the street in a beaver costume, but in order to know whether or not he walked away, you will simply have to take your own leap of faith, and read the book.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Don’t Push and Keep Breathing

My children are slowly edging toward teenager-dom. A scary time. Perhaps now, before all hell breaks loose, I’d do well to find some coping techniques that might work. Yesterday, at doula training, I had an epiphany, directly from labor and delivery, which I think is perfect for life. This one I intend to use: Don’t push and keep breathing!

We were discussing a phase of birth called transition. In this phase a woman moves from the early and active phases of laboring to the second stage, or actual delivery, of the baby. Transition is the hardest and most painful part of the birth. Contractions are coming in greater frequency and are longer and stronger. The baby’s head is lower in the mother’s pelvis, ready to make its way out to the world. It is putting a lot of pressure on the mother’s bottom, but the mother’s body is not yet ready for delivery, and she needs to practice this fabulous lifelong lesson: Don’t push and keep breathing!

What a wonderful lesson for the future! It is a lesson all us parents would do well to remember when the time comes for the baby’s first steps and her first attempt to go up and down the stairs. It is perfect for our son’s first day of kindergarten, his first playdates at a friend’s house, and the first time he goes to the neighborhood store by himself. It’s invaluable for our daughter’s first car ride, her first date with a boy, and for when she asks us for help with birth control. And later, too, this lesson remains: when our boy goes to college, marries, and has his own child. Don’t push and keep breathing! Let go! Stay calm!

Parenthood is a hard road, paved with mistakes, crises, and love. It can teach us so much about ourselves, some that we like and some that we really, but really, don’t like. In the doula class yesterday, we learned that one good position for a laboring woman in transition to be in is to lie on her back in bed with her legs resting on the birthing ball. The blood is flowing easier in her body. The pressure is there, the contractions are strong, but she is in a position of relaxation, and she cannot push.

Keep breathing. Don’t push. Let’s lie back with our feet on the ball and at least try to relax. Let the blood flow to our brains. Soon enough transition will pass. It’s the hardest phase, and after that, at least till the next transition, we can get some relief. The daughter or son who we brought to this world and who had taught us so much will soon be all grown up and doing just fine. Like our road, so theirs is paved with mistakes and with love. If they stumble or fall, we parents are there, ready to kiss and hug and give our support. Don’t push and keep breathing. I know we’re going to be all right.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Princess in the Tower

High in the tower, Rapunzel sits, combing her long hair. She reclines by the window, in her luxuriously decorated room, surrounded by her books, her canopied bed, and perhaps, if she is anything like Princess Fiona from Shrek, her kung fu tapes. One day soon her prince will come on his white horse. He will call, and Rapunzel will let down her hair so he can climb up.

Once rescued from the tower, Rapunzel will ride behind the prince through the never-before-viewed countryside, into the dark forest, and over the blue ocean (they’ve exchanged the horse with a white sailboat, of course). The prince is taking her to his castle, and once they get there, Rapunzel might discover that she has traded one room in a tower with another room in a castle. Both lovely, and both, ultimately, the same.

After posting my blog about the dolphin rescue, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wondered: if there were only women on that beach when the dolphins were stranded, would they still have stood back and just watched, or would they have jumped in for the rescue? It occurred to me that the answer to this question is an obvious, resounding "Jumped!" Of course women would have saved the dolphins. But somehow, because there were men around, they did not. They stood back and allowed the men to be heroic.

I doubt I would have jumped in to save the dolphins either in the midst of these men. “I’m too weak,” I would have thought probably. “What if I can’t grab hold of the dolphin’s tail, or the dolphin starts twisting and turning in my grip? What if I fail? What if the men tell me to go away?”

At the beginning of the first Shrek movie, Fiona surprises Shrek with her impressive kung fu skill and beats up Robin Hood and his Merry Men. At the end of the film, however, Farquaad's soldiers pull her back, and Fiona is suddenly helpless, allowing Shrek to rescue her. If Fiona can’t beat up two guards when her man is around, no wonder the rest of us can’t jump into the ocean to pull some dolphin tails back into the sea.

Is it that whenever men are watching, we women immediately become weak and powerless? Do we voluntarily (and perhaps involuntarily) give up our personal power, our own initiatives and allow the men to lead?

To us Rapunzels everywhere, I suggest we cut our own braids, tie them to the windowsill, and then let ourselves down. Why would we ever consider letting the prince climb up by holding on to our hair! It’s uncomfortable and painful and just plain dumb. I suggest we start changing our own lightbulbs and opening our own jars. The only tower I can see is the one we’ve built in order to keep ourselves inside -- and surely there’s no reason to avoid the beautiful, open, green outdoors just to please a guy?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Dolphin Rescue and the Weaker Sex

This morning I watched a clip which showed a pod of dolphins stranded on a beach. Spectators on the beach approached, uncertain at first what to do, then waded in to help. A few tried to pick up the dolphins and found them too heavy. Finally someone figured out to rescue the stranded animals by pulling them into deeper water by the tail.

Many beach goers waded in to help. An inspiring sight. Humans helping dolphins. But then, who can avoid helping these beautiful, intelligent animals? Who would not, without hesitation, jump right in to help? You might be surprised, then, to know that not one woman was among the courageous rescuers. No woman? My heart rebelled and cried out: Why not? Why did the women present remain on the beach, watching and not participating in this grand rescue?

A corresponding question immediately rose in my mind: are we women really the weaker sex? Some, I know, might have a quick response to this question: Yes, in general women are weaker than men. The statistics speak for themselves. The fastest woman ran a marathon in 2 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds. The fastest man's marathon record is 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds. The heaviest a woman weighing 69kg weight lifted was 128kg. For a man in the same weight category, the record is 165kg. And the list, I am sure, goes on and on.

Without bothering with statistics, however, there are quite a few first woman and person achievements that show that women are as capable as men. Lynn Hill, an American climber, was the first to climb El Capitan’s route “The Nose” without aid. Amelia Earhart holds a number of first flights: the first to fly from California to Hawaii, from LA to Mexico City, from Mexico City to Newark, and from the Red Sea to India. In a google search I found mention of a Sherpa woman named Chhurrim who climbed Mount Everest twice in one week. She is the only person to have done so. And women have intellectual achievements as well: Marie Curie, for example, is the only scientist to receive two Nobel prizes.

These firsts make me wonder. Is “the weaker sex” only in our heads? Do we women stand back and allow men to rescue dolphins because we perceive ourselves, not incapable exactly, but maybe less capable than them? And, a niggling question remains, would I have jumped in? And what would have happened if I did?

My daughter, watching the movie this afternoon, immediately voiced the same sentiment. “Why did no woman help?” She asked. My heart swelled with pride. Clearly I have taught her well. She and I, I told her, will make a commitment to each other right now. We will jump in together if ever dolphins are stranded on a beach before our eyes.

Inspiring Women First link
Best women in sports link

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Doula Training, the Fantasy Birth, and My Road to Freedom

Twelve years ago, I discovered that women love sharing their birth stories with other expectant mothers. I remember one friend’s surrealist tale: she had accepted an epidural and felt free from pain. She sat in bed with her husband, ate an ice pop, and watched television till the nurse told her it was time to push. Other moms had horror stories. My sister, who gave birth a few days before me, said: “I can’t believe that you still have to go through this torture.”

I was not really excited about giving birth after this. I was terrified of the pain and even more terrified of a needle in my back. If there was one thing I knew, it was that I wanted to give birth without an epidural. I said “No, no, no,” to the needle, and the needle was what I got. The universe, never distinguishing between yes and no, delivered.

At that point in my life, I was not yet aware of the power of manifestation, my abilities as a healer, or the importance, to me, of leading a natural life (including giving birth naturally). By the time my daughter came around two years later I was one step closer. I knew better what I wanted and not just what I did not want. My message was clearer: “Yes, yes, yes” to a natural birth.

During doula training, I find myself going back in my mind to those two births, trying to figure out what made them so different. I think one difference lies with the medical personnel who attended my birth. The nurse in my son’s birth broke my water, insisted that I lie in bed, connected me to monitors, ordered pitocin, and overrode my worries about the epidural, warning me that the pain of pitocin-induced contractions would be unbearable.

My daughter, in contrast, came out without medical intervention after three and a half hours, with very little pain and a lot of (me) dancing on the labor and delivery floor. My fabulous doctor sat off to the side, quiet and reassuring, allowing me to try any movement I wanted to do, and permitting me to stay out of the bed till I needed to push.

A second difference, I believe, lay in me, in the changes I went through in those two years, my determination and will. I did not get scared but simply let the experience happen. As I think of it now, I feel so proud of myself for having been able to have the birth I wanted, express my needs, and handle the pain.

Breakfasting with a doula book

At doula training, I hear stories about women who have gone through natural birth and felt empowered, as though having faced that, they could now do anything. Without having ever before put this thought into words, I think my second birth has given me a similar knowledge. I was still at the bottom of my spiritual ladder, suffering from depression, in an unhappy marriage, and overwhelmed by the world. But slowly and surely I was climbing, one step at a time, toward freedom. So brave, I can hardly believe it of myself.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Scooby Doo, Life, and the Joys of Parenting

This was one of my daughter's favorite films
“Mommy,” my daughter asked one night on the phone. “Can you tell me a Scooby Doo story that you make up?” I groaned. Making up a Scooby Doo story is not terribly hard -- there are elements which are sure to repeat in every tale -- but making one up still requires concentration and energy. It was 9pm, and her phone call had dragged me out of bed. Not my most creative and imaginative time. Despite that, I sat back in my rocking chair and began: “One day Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred went mushroom picking in the forest....”

As the tale unfolded, I added in all the expected twists and turns: a ghost appeared warning the friends away, Velma lost her glasses, Fred ran away in terror without looking out for the girls, Shaggy and Scooby required two Scooby Snacks in order to become bait, the trap the friends set up failed, and Scooby and Shaggy accidentally trapped the villain while attempting to ran away. In the end, after exposing the ghost (it turned out to be Red Riding Hood), the friends went together to eat mushroom pizza.

I told the story and smiled to myself. It occurred to me that a Scooby Doo story is not that different from life. Am I not often warned away by mysterious fears? Do I not bumble about most of each day feeling near-sighted or blind? Embarrassingly, I can think of occasions where I (metaphorically) ran away without assisting someone under my care, and chocolate is without doubt my most effective motivator in any situation in life. When I succeed in solving whichever mystery I struggled under for days, it is almost always by stumbling on the solution and after making a lot of mistakes, and I’ll always consider eating pizza (not forgetting my gluten/dairy free restrictions) the very best finale.

GF/DF pizza
Taking my reflections even farther, a Scooby Doo story can be a metaphor for parenting as well, and as such it offers me great comfort. Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Velma and Daphne always have the very best intentions. They are there to support those in need, solve mysteries, and expose fears for what they really are. Not that different from the work of a parent. Perhaps the gang does bungle most every thing they touch, but in the end, they are still somehow successful, and good intentions triumph over evil ones.

As a parent, I stumble in the dark more often than not. The only real tools I can depend on are my good intentions and the love that I bear for the kids. Scooby Doo gives me hope that those will be enough. “Those meddling kids!” The villains always complain at the end. “Those meddling parents!” My kids might say. But I hope that in time, over the course of their lives, they will end up appreciating what I’ve done, remember the good intentions and not the mistakes, and continue the tradition by enjoying their very own families, pizza, and Scooby Doo fun

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

The place where my family and I live feels like a safe place. Sure, there’s earthquakes, landslides, car accidents and other hazards that pose some risk to our safety, but on a day-to-day basis we rarely, if ever, have to worry about them. The likelihood of a dictator taking over the United States and deciding to annihilate all Jewish Caucasian mothers, or any other racial denomination I belong to, is quite slim. I am, most likely and most often, safe.

I am unlikely to wake up one morning and be told to pack up only as much as I can carry and move to Central California, where from now on I will have to work in the rice fields day and night. Nor am I likely to find myself sitting in long meetings in which the shape of my nose or the color of my skin will be judged, and after which, those who have failed the test will be taken under the mango tree and beat to death with an axe.

Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is a raw retelling of Arn Chorn-Pond’s experiences in Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Arn was just a child when the Khmer Rouge took over his village and told  the inhabitants that they must move to the countryside for “just three days.” Arn found himself working in the rice paddies, separated from his family, continually in danger for his life. The camp where he worked also served as an execution ground, and Arn realized his survival depended on the whims of the Khmer Rouge guards. He made himself a rule: Never fall down.

“Bend like the grass,” Arn’s aunt told him, and he tried to follow her advice. Despite never having played an instrument before, Arn volunteered to play the flute and became the leader of a band that was made to play to cover the noises of the executions. Later, as the Vietnamese began to advance, Arn had a weapon thrust in his arms and he became a boy soldier. With compassion and humanity, McCormick draws Arn’s portrait, a boy who does heart-rending things in order to survive. She shows with haunting clarity the boys bent in the rice fields, the ever-growing mound under the mango tree where a sickeningly sweet smell persists, the blank face of the music teacher, the line to receive the thin rice soup, and the boys crawling to reach the latrines.

My family and I live in a very safe place. Oak trees and tranquility rule outside my window. I am so grateful for having been born where I was. Many are not so lucky. So many children, adults, the old, are in need of homes, live without running water, struggle day to day to survive. I’d like to send my thoughts today to those in need, whether here in the United States, Cambodia, or elsewhere in our crazy, sometimes cruel world. I wish everyone could have a day of rest today, a day of sunshine and love.

Arn Chorn-Pond survived. He was adopted by an American U.N. worker, became a speaker about his experiences, and created several organizations that help children of war and that help return to Cambodia the traditional music and art which the Khmer Rouge had tried to eliminate.

Children of War is an organization that aids children held hostage by war and violence
Cambodian Living Arts (Facebook page) is an organization that helps preserve the traditional arts of Cambodia
Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development is an organization that provides computer skills and education to children, farmers, and others.
Arn Chorn-Pond speaker page
Arn Chorn-Pond's homepage
Patricia McCormick's homepage

Monday, February 18, 2013

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

In the musical Wicked, the Wizard of Oz taunts Elphaba: “Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history. A man’s called a traitor or liberator. A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist. Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.” The wizard’s words are cynical, but remind me of an important truth: history is what we remember after the fact. There is no such thing as an objective truth.

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley is the story of the famous photograph of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. One of these soldiers is the author’s father, John Bradley. The author showcases the many coincidences, myths and inaccuracies which turned the photograph into perhaps the most well-known image of World War II and a publicly acknowledged symbol of heroism. The entire lifting of the flag was a four-second event. A 1/400the of a second exposure by a photographer who barely had time to see the image he was capturing on film before he pressed the button, and the result became a symbol of valor under fire.

Was the raising of the flag an act of heroism? For me, it surely was. Its inspiring symbolism, in fact, is the reason I picked up the book in the first place. James Bradley, however, tries to portray the act of raising the flag as an ordinary, unimportant moment which the flag raisers barely recalled after it passed. “I want you to always remember something,” John Bradley told his son when the latter asked about the photograph, “The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”

The moment of raising the flag takes up twelve pages in this two-hundred page book. Surrounding the famous moment are the six young flag raisers, their life and death, hopes and dreams, and the chain of events which made them into celebrity-heroes. The book is, most importantly, the story of the bloodiest battle of World War II, a battle which claimed over 26,000 casualties on the American side: 6,821 dead and 19,217 wounded, as well as 21,844 dead Japanese (out of 22,000 who were stationed on the island).

Inspiring courage was the only thing on my mind when I suggested the book to my son for his reading project. What both of us encountered was a completely different experience. “This is a book of death,” my son said after reading the chapter titled D-Day. This a book about the truth behind the symbol, I thought to myself. It’s a book about how terrible war is, how devastating to everyone involved, the soldiers, the officers, their families and even their future children. It’s about how, in history, we all too often choose to see only the aspect which pleases us.

The symbolism attached to the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima is an occasion to explore the misrepresentation of courage in battle in order to divert public attention from death and destruction to what is perceived as ideal: valor, the American spirit, and self-sacrifice. James Bradley does an excellent job in portraying the horrors of war side by side with acts of bravery, and the machinations of politicians side by side with the ordinariness of human courage. As he says at the end of the book:

“They were boys of common virtue.
Called to duty.
Brothers and sons. Friends and neighbors.
And fathers.
It’s as simple as that.”

This review refers to the Young Reader edition of the novel.

To find out more:
Iwo Jima memorial page
Flags of Our Fathers on GoodReads
Battle of Iwo Jima wikipedia page
The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima wikipedia page

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rereading the Lord of the Rings

I read the Hobbit when I was a teenager and loved it, all of it. I loved the dwarves and Bilbo. I loved Gandalf the Grey. I loved the beauty and music of the elves. I loved the dragon and the necromancer who makes Mirkwood an evil place.

The Hobbit, narrated by Rob Inglis
When I started the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, however, I found myself in an entirely different place. Evil threatened the world I have come to love. Darkness ruled. Frodo and his friends seemed to be journeying by night toward night, and I did not like this at all. I put the book aside and did not read it again till I was an adult. When I finally ventured into Middle Earth again, the danger facing Frodo and his friends was as real to me as before, but I was no longer attached to Middle Earth as it was in Bilbo’s time.

I fell deeply in love with Middle Earth. I walked in the darkness of Moria, floated on the river Anduin, and sang in the Last Happy Home. Till today, I can see in my mind the river in which Frodo faced the nine black riders and the chasm into which Gandalf fell with the Balrog. Middle Earth and its inhabitants were, and still are, as real to me as this earth, and perhaps, sometimes, more.

I began to listen to the Hobbit with the kids a few months ago, but they did not like the book. Too many difficult words, I think. I ended up listening by myself, and having finished it, immediately began the Lord of the Rings. My love for the book has only increased with the years. How well done it is! How magically real! How amazingly its descriptions throw me far in time and place so that I’m right there, at the table in Elrond’s house or in the elf boats, shooting downstream under the tall statues of the seated kings of old.

LOTR narrated by Rob Inglis
It doesn’t matter to me that there are few women in these books. I connect with the friendship between Gimli and Legolas, feel compassion for Boromir’s need to save his people and disgust with Gollum as he cowers and cheats and lies. I admire the loyalty of Sam, the quiet courage of Frodo, the natural kingliness of Aragorn, and I laugh with the two bumbling hobbits, Pippin and Merry, as they accidentally manage to raise an entire forest to war.

No other book has ever become so real to me. I have read it now more than twice or thrice, and still it sucks me deep into its world so that I no longer know where I am or what goes on around me. I hope that one day the kids will be open to listen to it, to share this love with me. For now, I guess I’ll just continue to allow the magic to emerge out of the words of the book as I listen to it in the car on my own. And if one day I disappear on the way, know that that’s where I went, to Middle Earth, to say hello to Gandalf, take a look at Sam’s elvish garden, ride on an eagle, see an elf, visit a dwarf in his home.

These are the audible books I've been listening to:
The Hobbit, unabridged, narrated by Rob Inglis
The Fellowship of the Ring, unabridged, narrated by Rob Inglis

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Messing Up

Lately, I’ve been trying to encourage my kids to mess up. “Messing up is the best thing you can do, and making mistakes is the only way to learn,” I preached to Eden who cried after forgetting to do her homework. She threw me a deservedly suspicious look. My sermon was another example of the famous “Do as I say, not as I do.” “Be quiet, Ima,” the child said. Perhaps the wisest words heard that day.

How I wish to be always perfect, patient, polite, empathic, wise, thoughtful and kind. Never yell at the kids, never make a mistake, always treat other human beings with patience and respect. How I wish each of my actions and words came from the heart, out of love and compassion and trust.

The perfect imperfection of nature
Why is it so much easier to be kinder to another person than to myself? I look at Eden’s forgetfulness of her homework and see it as a path to growth, a lucky break from which she can learn so much. But when I make a mistake, especially if it is about the kids or my writing, it is an earth-shattering disaster, a trauma unlikely ever to be healed, a case for putting more money in my savings jar for the psychiatrist, the horrible, terrible end.

In The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes about research that shows that people are less likely to repeat their mistakes if they are treated with compassion. Subjects of an experiment who were told not to worry about their candy consumption, because everyone sometimes eats too much, ate fewer pieces than their counterparts who were not given the reassuring message. It takes so little, it seems, to make us feel happier, loved and secure. It takes so little, just a few words, to make us remember to cling to our higher self’s dreams and goals.

But how to change habits of a lifetime? I am so used to dance to my inner Critic’s music that I can barely hear any tune other than his. Even trying to talk to the Critic seems to fail. A long list of grievances spews from his lips, and as I listen to him, I find myself questioning myself: Could he be right? Am I really like this?

“If I don’t push you, you will never do anything,” the Critic says. And it seems to me to be true. And yet I wonder: what if he could learn to push with compassion? What if instead of criticisms, he could provide gentle, empathic reminders? Seems to me my Critic and I have a lot in common. We both of us wish to be more patient and kind. Perhaps, if I could forgive him his messes, he could forgive me mine? Perhaps if we joined hands, something, finally, can be done?

To all of this joins another desire: to be an example to my children. To be able to say, “Do as I do.” I would love for them to grow up criticism-free. And perhaps, with that, as with everything else, I need to remember: don’t worry, everyone messes up. It's the best learning way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Hungry? Finish Your Cake

As a child, I was a very picky eater, and like a lot of children who leave most of their food on their plate, I too heard about the children starving in Africa. It made me feel quite bad. I imbibed the idea that my troubles were very small compared to those of other children who lived in less privileged parts of the world. I grew ashamed whenever I was struggling with a hard time. Suffering, indulging in suffering, was wrong, because what do I, a girl living in abundance, safety and freedom, have to complain about?

For years, I didn’t believe my own pain from depression. Divorce? Piece of cake. It’s not like I was starving. The flu? Other people are dying, untreated, of lesser illnesses even as we speak. I miss the kids? How dare I miss them when other children, even younger, are dead.

Some of my friends posted yesterday a link to a video in which people from third world countries read first world country problems: “I hate it when I forget my charger downstairs, when my house is so big I need two wireless routers, when my leather seats are not heated, when I leave the clothes in the washer so long they start to smell.” A blurb reminds us that “things that irritate us would be part of fantasy lives for people in third world countries.”

Listening to the video, I wondered, do its producers really believe that these are first world countries? Here in the United States, many are indeed fortunate. We have clean water, indoor heating, cars for every adult, public education, and abundant food. We also sometimes complain about forgetting our phone chargers downstairs. And we probably would, most of us, feel ashamed to mention any problems after listening to this video. But that doesn’t mean that our problems are any less difficult to bear.

Bipolar disorders, depression, divorces, suicide, illnesses, crime, car accidents, terrorism, losing a parent or a child, natural disasters, stress from work, we suffer from these and many more. And we could be allowed to suffer from our problems without being reminded that others in others countries are less fortunate than us. Would we tell someone whose wife died in a car accident that she was lucky to to even have a car?

I have an indoor sink!
I and many people around me (including those friends who posted that video) try to assist and give of our abundance almost every day to those in need, to those less fortunate than us, to those whose suffering is almost incomprehensible to us because we are looking at them from our position of privilege and plenty. Giving of our abundance is a wonderful feeling, to us and to those who receive of it. Let us not grow ashamed either of what we have or of what we lack, because it is our common pain and suffering that allows us to grow compassionate with the pain of the other.

Next time you leave your charger downstairs, go ahead and complain. My heart is with you. It is big enough to feel the annoyance (and sometimes much more than annoyance) of having to walk back down the stairs. My heart is big enough to feel for you and for the child with her stomach bloated with hunger. So fear not. As far as I am concerned, you’re free to feel pain.

If you want more:
Link to the First World Country Problems video

If this blog post is making your feel charitable today or any day:
Link to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation, one of the charities I've been giving money to since Uri fell in love with gorillas at age 2.
Link to Bay Area Wilderness Training, a non-profit that is involved with getting less privileged kids outdoors. I believe that reconnecting to nature is our best path to world peace. I've been involved with this organization since 2006.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

That Flat Stomach

I have a confession to make: when I was eighteen and had my first real boyfriend, I was obsessed with having a flat stomach. I am 5’2” and weighed at the time 48 kilograms, which is equivalent to 108 pounds. I was not even close to being fat, but, I had a rounded stomach. Oh, how I hated that stomach! Every night I did one hundred sit ups, full ones, with my feet under the bed frame. I am sure my posture must have improved, but there was no change in the roundness of my stomach.

As a lifelong member of the Society of Wimps and Geeks, I never liked exercise. In elementary school I used to hide under my desk in a pathetic and (as you probably guessed) unsuccessful attempt to skip PE class. As an adult, I discovered a better way to embrace the necessity to exercise (at least in order to leave my stomach round rather than rounder). I told myself that exercise allows me to eat whatever I want. In went the chocolates, the cakes, ravioli, gnocchi, and pizza, and though I never got much bigger than, say, 122 pounds, my tummy never got flatter.

Then came the big revelation. Rock climbers belong to the Society of Wimps and Geeks! Not as Wimps, of course. They qualify for their innate Geekiness. Longing for a break in my fortunes as well as for some adventure (about which I had so far only read in books), I applied to enter that holly order and was accepted, though retaining my Wimpishness. And my round stomach.
Sitting on the summit of Mt. Conness, Yosemite

Having joined the holly order of climbers, I suddenly had a new exercising goal. Now I wanted stamina, leg power, and upper body strength, though you may be sure I still cared how far my stomach flopped over the climbing harness. Exercising changed its name to training. I was training to climb. And climb I did: Rainier, Shasta, Olympus, and some rock climbing routes that I would never have imagined myself on or near. But underneath it all, and certainly beneath the harness, I still worried (in present tense too) about the flatness of my stomach.

Setting the goal to be healthy and strong, says Kelly McGonigal in her book The Will Power Instinct, is a much better and more pertinent motivator than using food as a reward. Say, for example, when my favorite chocolate and nuts bar calls to me with its sweet promise, I can remember my goal of being healthy and strong and decide whether that bar, tempting though it is, would support my goal (answer: no, and no buts).

I want to be healthy and strong. I want to exercise because it supports my goals, and I want to accept and love my stomach no matter how round.  And every once in a while I want to eat that chocolate bar, because, to tell the truth, it too supports one of my goals: the one about living life to the fullest and having fun!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Holding On to Letting Go

Last night, as I was getting ready to go to sleep, an overwhelming sense of dread and loss crept over me. I paused, trying to analyze what precisely was scaring me, and discovered to my surprise that I was stressing, thirty-six hours in advance, about Wednesday morning when the children go, as they always do, to spend their allocated days with their father.

Nearly eight years have passed since the divorce, but the anxiety over my time without the children returns at regular intervals, usually on Tuesday, the day before they are to leave. Wednesdays, after dropping them off at school, I walk around the house like a ghost, not quite knowing what to do with myself. There seems to be no reason to cook, which I suppose is understandable, but why do I not use this “free” time to write, paint, garden, or -- the fairies save me -- have fun?

Every week I ask myself the same question: why can’t I just let go? The custody arrangement is not about to change, and it is high time to accept that and move on. And yet, somehow, it is my very identity as a mother that is in a crisis. I cannot be a mother only half of the week, but how am I a mother during the days when the children are not with me?

Parenting and life itself, it seems to me, are made up of letting-go bumps. The moment of birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord. Weaning and moving to solid foods. Sleep training. A nanny. Preschool. Kindergarten. The first playdate without mommy, then the first party without mommy. Overnight field trips. Overnight camp. Puberty. And before us, always, the scariest moment, the end of high school, the beginning of college. Soon, they will be moving away, perhaps to the other side of the world, finding a partner, getting married, having their own children. And us no longer needed. And soon, gone.

I cheer myself up by saying that letting go is a life-long endeavor. I look ahead, and I can see that my road leads me straight toward these bumps. No matter how much I twist and turn, how much I struggle or try to avoid a particular bump, life relentlessly pushes me on, forcing me into greater and greater letting go's.

This morning, before school, Eden and I listened to music together. I felt the warmth of her little body against mine, admired how big she got, how long her legs and arms, how cute her little nose is, and the sparkle in her eyes. The next moment I was walking her to school, getting a brief hug. And then I was alone. No matter how hard I try, there is no way to stop the clock. I find myself holding on to these wonderful moments of connection, forcing myself to remember to let go of all but the memory once they are gone.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Serving in the Israeli army, I first became aware of the distinction between loneliness and aloneness. At home, I was acutely aware of missing my parents who lived far away in the United States. Every creak of the old walls echoed through my mostly empty childhood home, reminding me of the days we all lived in it together, the days when I was not so alone. In my army unit, though surrounded by people, my loneliness was, if possible, even more pronounced. I had not a single friend to talk to, to sit with during meals, walk with to the showers, or exchange little bits of gossip and laugh before we fell asleep. There were many people around me, yet it was clear to me that I did not belong.

According to mystic and spiritual teacher Osho, aloneness and loneliness are far from interchangeable: “Loneliness is the absence of the other. Aloneness is the presence of oneself. Aloneness is very positive. It is a presence, overflowing presence. You are so full of presence that you can fill the whole universe with your presence and there is no need for anybody.” For the two and a half years of my military service, I was too unhappy -- and perhaps too young -- to understand that while I could not help my aloneness, the loneliness was a choice, self-imposed and self-made. I was not yet aware that I could be enough by (and for) myself.

Long after I shed my uniform and returned to the United States, the understanding dawned on me that those girls who served with me in the army may have wanted to be friends. Belatedly, I saw that in my relationship with them I concentrated on the differences between us: I noticed every song and singer they were fond of that I had never heard about, every movie they loved that I had never seen. I paid attention to every clue that showed me that their Israeli high school experience was completely different from my American one. I focused on their superiority. And sometimes, conversely, on mine.

In his discourse, Osho quotes the Buddha, reminding the reader: “Be a light unto yourself.” “Ultimately,” Osho writes, “each of us must develop within ourselves the capacity to make our way through the darkness without any companions, maps or guide.” For moments at a time, I know I can be alone without feeling lonely, though I suppose that sitting at home surrounded by dogs, chickens and a cat can hardly be claimed as true “alone.” But it is during hard times that the alone is so difficult.

Of course no one can suffer the pain of childbirth for a laboring mother, write a test for a struggling student, or face the fear of death for a dying person, but it seems to me that another person’s support -- a hand offered in comfort and love -- sure helps at those times. I would like to make my peace with aloneness, to allow my own presence to fill me and the universe, but while I might dispense with “needing” someone else, I would always like to leave an opening for friends to come.

All the quotes and the card photo were taken from the booklet inside the Osho Zen Tarot deck.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Case of the Brussels Sprout Soup

On Monday I made Brussels sprout soup. We ate the soup for dinner with mixed results. Dar and I loved it. Uri was ambivalent but finished his bowl. Eden said that the soup looked disgusting. I got her to take a tiny sip by telling her that I’m sure the soup doesn’t taste as bad as she thinks it does. She tasted, spit out, and said only: “It does.”

When we got back home on Tuesday. Uri requested that I heat a bowl of the soup for him. I was busy prepping for dinner and suggested that he get the soup out of the fridge and heat some for himself. He is twelve, after all, and knows how to use the microwave. But Uri wanted me to get him the soup. He nagged, stomped his feet, told me I was a bad mother, complained that he was dying of hunger, and finally stalked off to his clarinet lesson with many an accusatory glance. After the lesson, weighed with guilt, I heated him some soup.

Parenting experts often say that a mother (or father) should not do for the children what the children can do for themselves. These experts would probably be appalled by the amount of indulgence going on at my house. I twist water bottle caps open for the kids, bring them clothes to bed, wake them up in the morning, make them breakfast, lunch and dinner, help with homework, carry Eden’s backpack to school, and I always, always, bring forgotten lunches, projects, homework folders, and jackets to school.

Every once in a while, as in the case of the Brussels sprout soup, I try to stand up for myself, thinking that I might teach the children some independence and self reliance. And as in the case of the Brussels sprout soup, more often than not the result is total failure. On Tuesday, for example, I found myself guilty that the child had his clarinet lesson without food and then guilty for giving in and heating up the soup.

Wendy Mogel, in her fabulous parenting book Blessings of a Skinned Knee, suggests that calling a family meeting and announcing that “things are going to change here from now on” is not the way to implement change. Instead of drastic reorganizations, it might be better to make subtle changes.

In recent months, I taught the kids how to use the microwave, make themselves a bagel with cream cheese, and put clothes in the laundry machine and the dryer. They’ve also began to do homework much more independently than before. True, I have more failures than successes in my attempts to get them to become contributing members of our small family community, but the general direction is good. I am hopeful that by the time they go to college, they will at least have an idea of how to wash their own clothes. Perhaps they’ll eat more than just take-out pizza, and (to quote an amusing example from parenting expert Madeline Levine), they won’t feel that they need to call me in order to find out where their next class is.

Brussels Sprout Soup Recipe

One pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and with the top leaves removed
One onion, diced
One large potato, cut into cubes
One zucchini, diced
Garlic to taste, sliced
About 4-6 cups of vegetable soup broth, just enough to cover the vegetables

Sauté the onion and garlic till caramelized.
Add Brussels sprout and diced zucchini and pour in vegetable broth till covered.
Let boil and then cook for 20 minutes until the Brussels sprouts are soft.
Mash together till smooth in the blender and return to pot.
Cut the potato to cubes and add to soup, let it boil again and cook for 30 minutes till the potato cubes are soft. Stir every few minutes to make sure the potatoes do not sink and stick to the bottom of the pot.


For more on this topic:
Wendy Mogel's Myths about Raising Self Reliant Children
Madeline Levine's Website

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Recognizing Resilience

Don't worry, be happy!
A few days ago, a friend came up to me while we waited for the kids in the schoolyard. He’s been going through a tough time lately, getting a divorce from his wife of many years. We stood for a while as he told me about how hard for him was the separation from the kids, from his wife, and from mutual friends who have been choosing sides. I felt a lot of empathy for him, and, wishing to cheer him up, I told him that divorce is considered one of the most difficult things people go through in life. “After you go through this,” I said, “you’ll be able to handle anything else in life.”

My friend smiled half-heartedly, not consoled, but for me the world paused and (metaphorically) tilted on its axis. My own words struck me with incredible force. Wait a second, I thought, didn’t I also go through divorce?

I do not see myself as an especially resilient person, or rather, perhaps I should say, I am more of a worrier, an anxiety-monger. Some fears, especially late at night, strike me with an unbearable, overwhelming dread: losing the children, Dar, or my parents, sickness, and plane crushes. And one thing is clear to me: if it happens, I will not be able to survive. Many other fears hover around me, and though smaller than death, they do not feel at all small. I am worried about the children’s social and intellectual success at school, my parenting mistakes, the dogs, the chickens, and more.

Worrying about these, I suppose, means that I think there is something I can do about them, solutions, even if I don’t know exactly what those solutions are. And so every once in a while I get very overwhelmed by all this responsibility of keeping everyone healthy and happy and well, and I find myself (though not threatened by any danger to life) living in survival mode and under a lot of unnecessary stress.

But wait a second, I too went through divorce, one of the most difficult things people can go through in life. And according to my own words to my friend, that means I can now handle anything else. So... does surviving divorce really mean that perhaps I do have some resilience, some ability to survive other difficulties in life? In a potential Hunger Game situation, could I find that I would not, after all, be the first to die?

To tell the truth, I’m not entirely excited about my potential for survival because I want to be clear with God: no more of this suffering stuff, ok? I want the kids and Dar to be healthy and happy and well, my parents to grow healthy to a very old age, my friends and my family as well. So perhaps I’m resilient, so what? There’s no need to test if it’s true. Let the sun shine all over us today and everyday. On you too.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Seducing Mr. Knightly by Maya Rodale

Annabelle Swift, the fourth writing girl from Maya Rodale’s Writing Girls series, never much attracted my notice. Quiet, shy, and easily overlooked, Annabelle did not strike me as having much potential to be the heroine of a sassy or steamy romance like her counterparts, fiery Julianna, daring Eliza or confident Sophie. Having read and loved the first three novels in the series, I wondered what kind of romance would befall Annabelle. She’s been in love with the newspaper’s owner, Derek Knightly, but that love, so far in the series, had only been expressed in a sigh upon his entrance to the weekly staff meeting. How would Annabelle seduce Mr. Knightly? I found I very much wanted to know.

Mr. Knightly, Annabelle’s employer and the object of her affections is a hard and unscrupulous man. He does not notice her as a woman or writer. He doesn’t even read her column, Dear Annabelle, in which Annabelle gives love and etiquette advice to the newspaper’s readers. Something drastic would have to happen, I thought, for that to change. Annabelle seducing Mr. Knightly seemed tantamount to the seduction of a lion by a mouse. But Annabelle, lovesick and feeling near to death with being sick from love, takes a desperate measure and instead of giving advice in her column, turns to London with a question of her own: “For the past few years I have loved a man from afar, and I fear he has taken no notice of me at all. I know not how to attract his attention and affection. Dear readers, please advise!”

Knightly expects that Annabelle is the last person in London to cause trouble, but as Annabelle discards her old habits by the advice of her readers, he soon learns to think otherwise. Annabelle lowers her bodice, buys herself new silken underthings, learns how to gaze at a man in a sultry fashion, practices fainting, climbs trees, and dares to keep going in her quest for love no matter how ridiculous, silly, or embarrassing it gets. With baited breath, I (and the rest of London) followed the progress of Annabelle’s attempts to gain Knightly’s attention, and fell completely in love.

“That was one amazing woman, sitting there, making herself invisible. She was kind, beautiful, generous, daring and funny. She possessed the courage to ask for help and to share her triumphs and embarrassments with the whole city. She possessed the strength to do the right thing even when it was the hard thing.”

A character like Annabelle is exactly why I love romance novels. Romances open up a possibility for grand gestures, self expression, and crazy daring in love which in real life most of us could only dream about. There is room, in romances, for women to be everything and anything they want to be, and they are always, always loved, appreciated, and accepted for it. Watching Annabelle put her heart on the line and go all the way for what she wants reminded me that getting hurt once in a while (as when Knightly asks her if she has something in her eye when she throws him a particularly seductive gaze) can be worth the risk in the long run, if one but has the courage to laugh, as Annabelle does over the pages of the newspaper: “...this led to a mortifying disaster. Rather than succumb to the fervor in my gaze, more than one person inquired if I had something stuck in my eye.”

Maya Rodale, I am a fan!

Click here for my review of Maya Rodale's The Tattooed Duke
Maya Rodale's Website
Maya Rodale's GoodReads Page

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Stephanie Laurens’ A Rogue’s Proposal

The word rogue has the following synonyms in my dictionary: scoundrel, villain, good for nothing, miscreant, reprobate, and wretch -- and in its more archaic use: blackguard and knave. I’ve already written in the past about the abundance of rogues and rakes in romances -- they are well loved. But in Stephanie Laurens’ romance, A Rogue's Proposal, Demon (otherwise known as Harry or Harold) Cynster is a rogue of a different kind.

I did not fall in love with Demon -- something that I absolutely am looking for in these romantic heroes. He irritated me from the first, chasing after Flick the boy who he suspects is a woman because of the shape of his (or rather, her) bottom. Mostly, however, Demon irritated me because he wouldn’t give Flick (Felicity) even the slightest chance to prove that she can get along just fine without being rescued by him. If he was a rogue, he was a rogue in that.

By continually rescuing Flick, Demon managed to compromise her honor twice, lost the trail of the man they were both following, and made Flick feel lonely and unloved (in an attempt to keep her reputation intact). Fortunately, Stephanie Laurens kept rescuing him: the lord who saw Flick and Demon together got mumps, Flick’s lenient and apparently too optimistic guardian always believed their stories, their quarry magically reappeared in the corner of the street in front of their eyes, and an old aunt popped up to explain to Flick why Demon was ignoring her.

So many romance novels present the strong, independent heroine. I felt sad for Flick to miss being in those ranks. A natural leader, responsible, led by a strong sense of justice and fairness, courageous to a fault, I wanted Flick to experience the same excitement and freedom as other regency heroines. Every time Demon stopped her from rushing headlong into an adventure, every time she felt she had to ask him for help, every time he rescued her from what he perceived as a threat, I cringed. I wanted Flick to get her wings.

Stephanie Laurens, however, had a plan, which perhaps I might have seen had I stopped being so irritated with Demon all the time. Demon is a man who is used to seeing women in black and white, as either weak and helpless maidens or as temptresses. Innocent yet smart, loyal, brave, and often rush, Flick is neither damsel in distress nor a woman of the world. Demon starts out by reluctantly allowing her to lead the way out of a room, but he ends up, whether he wants to or not, admitting that she’s just as capable of rescuing him as he is her.

I ended up enjoying this novel a lot more after I understood what Stephanie Laurens was about, though I did not love Demon to the end. Too controlling and uncommunicative to my taste. A Rogue’s Proposal is the fourth in the Cynster novels (of which there are twenty). I’m thinking I might check the first one out.

Check out my review of another Cynster Novel here: The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Go! Go! Go Strong!

“I want to be strong,” I told my trainer, and he took me seriously, challenging my resolve with workouts that had me, after about a year, doing push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups easily. From the girl who hid under her desk to avoid P.E. and who could not hang from the ladder for more than ten seconds without all her muscles trembling, I became, to my surprise, an athlete. I discovered that I had a lot more stamina and determination than I thought possible.

Physical strength gave me confidence. I found myself at the top of mountains which I never would have thought to see: Mount Shasta, Mount Rainier, Mount Olympus, the Yosemite Matterhorn, Cathedral Rock and more. I embarked on solo backpacking trips. One day I hiked for twenty five miles and over five thousand feet in elevation to get to the waterfall in Henry Coe State Park. On Mount Olympus I spent four nights and five days backpacking and climbing with a group that included seven other guys and me. I went rock climbing all over Yosemite, venturing even to Tahoe and Mt. Whitney with a guide.

I love feeling strong, physically able, hiking for miles, existing in the peace that envelops me when I climb. I love the strong, capable me, the doer, the one who is always on the go, go, go! The one who is adventurous and active. I don’t take vacations sunning myself on the beach, and even in the Bahamas or Hawaii, I fly from one side of the island to the other, hiking, jogging, kayaking, exploring.

I’m not very good at resting or taking it easy. When my Inner Lounging Goddess raises her head and tries to remind me that it might be good to sit down, lie down, or get a massage, other parts of me stifle her gentle suggestion. Rest? Whatever for? I have to go, go, go!  I haven’t done anything yet! I still want to write and paint and organize and do. There is no time for rest. And anyways, don’t I rest all the time? It’s not like I do any work!

That, I think, might very well be the root of the problem. I am forever proving to myself that though I do not work in an office, I still work. And whether I'm writing or spending time with the kids, it is never enough, never legitimately work. If I rest, if I miss a day of writing, if the kids are not there, the parts of me who need the action are appalled. Resting is just not done in my world.

I suspect that if I listened to my Inner Lounging Goddess more, the end result might be more energy and output, more productivity and creativity. I ask myself, what if I started taking time to lounge every day, take long baths, enjoy my breakfast while reading? What if I walked slower, took deeper breaths, looked around me, and closed my eyes more? What a wonderful world this could be, would it not?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ryan Porter’s Make Your Own Lunch

I used to make myself a sandwich for lunch while in elementary school. My mother insists, of course, that this is not true, and that I never (till today, probably) made my own lunch. And yet I distinctly remember making -- and feeling bored with -- my sandwiches of Israeli cream cheese on brown bread. Despite my discontent, I never considered making myself something else, not even a sandwich with chocolate spread or jam, though I am sure that those alternatives were available to me. I made myself the same uninspired sandwich every day, and every day I unhappily ate it for lunch.

Ryan Porter, in his fabulous, funny, and very inspiring “How To” book: Make Your Own Lunch, How to Live an Epically Epic Life of Epicness, reminds us that we make our own lunch, and that we can change that lunch whenever we want and whichever way we'd like. He encourages us to remember what exactly it means to dream and go after our dreams. He challenges us to let go of all other options, forget about plan B, close our ears to relatives’ cautions and warnings, and make a step-by-step plan, keeping our goals, dreams, and passions always before our eyes. He tells us: You don’t like the sandwich you make (or get) for lunch every day? Well then, it is time to make a new sandwich. Or maybe a salad, or even steak and fries.

Ryan Porter’s intended audience is high school students, but for me, at forty, the funny stories of his life and his astute insights worked just as well. I found myself wondering just why is it that I am not following my dreams with the single-minded focus that Porter champions? Why am I always ready with a plan B, and why is my attention engaged almost exclusively by the low likelihood of me becoming a published writer (or a reiki practitioner) in my preferred way?

At forty, I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of why I cannot make my own lunch: I’m not ready; I don’t know enough; I'm not good enough; my parents would disapprove; my friends would think I’m strange; people will read my book and know that I thought about this; people will disagree with me; my siblings will be ashamed of me; the kids will be mad at me. And many many more. For this second part of my life, I would like to live an epically epic life of epicness, following my dreams and doing just what I want to do, with epic successes and epic fails, instead of just sitting at home afraid to venture.

Ryan Porter presents an idea so simple it is almost incomprehensible: set a goal, get rid of all the other options, and start moving, step by step, toward that goal. Don’t try to swallow that goal whole. Take small bites on the way. And behold: it is yours.

To check out more about Ryan Porter:
Make Your Own Lunch Website
Ryan Porter's Youth Speaker Website
Ryan Porter on Youtube
Make Your Own Lunch on Amazon
Buy a paperback of Make Your Own Lunch from Porter's website

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Empowered Wo(man)

All my life, books transported me far away to worlds I could hardly imagine in my everyday life. Rapturously, I followed Tarzan’s adventures in the jungle, Robin Hood’s exploits in Sherwood Forest, Michael Strogoff’s journey through Siberia and Ivanhoe’s struggle to return justice to England at the time of the crusades. I adored these heroes. I wanted to emulate them. I wished to be a hero myself.

Thirty years ago, few female characters existed in literature that raised in me similar desires for grand action and bravery. And yet, though a girl (and now a woman) myself, I yearned to read about --and to live -- a life of heroic deeds. When I enlisted in the Israeli army in 1990, I hoped for a chance to be a warrior. Instead, I found myself serving in the army as more or less a secretary to a bored (and fat) older man who smoked too much and thought my main job ought to be serving him coffee and removing the cup after he was done.

Girls readers today have more female literary role models, heroines who fight for justice, peace, and freedom, than I had growing up. Whether it is Katniss in The Hunger Games, Katsa of Graceling, Beatrice in Divergent, or Celaena of Throne of Glass, teen literature overflows with female characters who are survivors. They are physically and mentally strong and capable of defending themselves even under the most extreme circumstances. Girls today need no longer dream of being a hero: they can become a heroine.

I recently read an article by Sarah Blackwood which discusses the character of Bella from the popular Twilight Saga. Blackwood describes Bella thus: “Bella waits, she wallows, she thinks, and feels, and worries, and wonders. She does not actualize in the sense we have come to expect from our heroines....” Blackwood mentions Katniss and Katsa as contrasts to Bella, yet she wonders: do these strong, actualized and empowered girl characters in fact represent a male perspective on what it means to be actualized and empowered? Have we feminists fallen into a new trap where, in an attempt to carve our equal status in the world, we define our strength by male guidelines? Have we rejected the passive, gentle, forgiving woman -- the traditional definition of the feminine -- to become nothing more than a tiny man?

While I would not like to reject out of hand any of my feminine qualities (forgiveness and gentleness especially seem to me worthwhile to keep), and while I appreciate Bella’s popularity among teen girls -- clearly her character answers a need in them -- still I personally have always turned to the chivalrous, heroic and brave rather than to the passive or needy. In truth, none of the Twilight characters particularly appealed to me, male or female. Instead, I turn to Katsa whose ability to survive, her prowess in fight, and her sense of justice are ideals I wish to live by, or Eugenides, from Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, whose daring, wisdom, and loving heart made me his fan for life. My wish to be like either of them depends less on their gender and more on their qualities. And similarly, it is not either gender that I crave, but their courageous, loyal heart.

To read more:
The article about Twilight’s Bella.
My review of The Thief.
My review of Graceling.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan Philipp Sendker

Like the stereotype of a bookish woman, I am extremely near-sighted. Without my contacts even a large human nose and bushy eyebrows blur together into one muddy featureless head. With my contact lenses, the world sharpens into clear shapes, colors and forms, and yet I am often surprised by how unobservant I am. I can rarely remember what people wear, notice a new haircut, or find my way again to an address I’ve traveled to before.

In Jan Philipp Sendker’s fabulous novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, true sight comes not from seeing but through hearing. Tin Win is a Burmese boy who goes blind after his mother deserts him. Slowly other perceptions leak into Tin Win’s world. His hearing sharpens to the point where he can recognize a butterfly by the sound of its batting wings and an unborn chick by the beat of a heart. He can know if a person is happy, sad, tired, angry or even dying by the different heartbeats, and he can move through the village by the sounds of the breaths of a horse, a worm gnawing on a wood fence, or a woman chopping ginger in a nearby hut.

As the world comes into a new focus for Tin Win, he meets a young disabled woman, Mi Mi, and falls in love. With her words, Mi Mi helps Tin Win give names to the different sounds that he hears. Crawling about, she explores till she finds the worm that Tin Win heard or the egg in which beats the chick’s little heart. With Mi Mi, Tin Win learns the truth of his teacher’s promise, that nothing is more powerful than love. His blind world, now no longer empty because of his love for Mi Mi and his magical hearing, lights up.

“What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” Tin Win’s teacher tells him. When his uncle takes Tin Win away from his village and pays for surgery to fix his eyes, the young man struggles not to let his eyes come in the way of his hearing. He looks at all the colors, objects, shadows and curves, and they remain a photograph for him, lifeless. He longs to return to his village, to marry Mi Mi, to go back to how his life was before, but fate and his uncle have other plans for him.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a love story, a mystery, and a tale of the magic in ordinary things. For Mi Mi and Tin Win their love is a source of inner happiness whether they are together or separated. Carried on the gentle waves of this lovely novel, I could glimpse both the selflessness and the selfishness of their love and the impact it had on the lives around them.

Sight and blindness come in different forms. Seeing eyes do not see everything, but -- much though I would wish to have a hearing gift like Tin Win’s -- neither does a listening heart. The humanity in this book, the tragedy of decisions made and connections severed and kept, make this novel linger in my mind over two weeks after I finished it.

Buy The Art of Hearing Heartsbeats on Amazon
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats on GoodReads

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Beauty Without Part II

On our last day at Grand Bahama Island, we went over to Unexso for a Dolphin Encounter. A twenty-minute boat ride through clear, turquoise waters took us into a secluded bay overlooked by expensive-looking homes. We got to pet a fourteen-year old dolphin named Coral who kissed each of us in turn. She and another dolphin swam around, splashing us. They spat water at us playfully, swam backwards on their tail, executed synchronized flips, and impressed us more than I had thought possible. We had an absolute blast.

As we sat there, in that gorgeous, well-maintained garden above the limpid dolphin pools, surrounded by luxury homes, on the secluded bay with the clear turquoise water, it occurred to me that as a tourist I could potentially just see this face of Grand Bahama Island. Had we not rented a vacation rental which happened to be in a more seedy part of town, had we not driven around the island, had we only stayed near the beaches and the touristy activities surrounding them, we would not have known anything other than those turquoise water, the wide sandy beaches, the fancy restaurants, and a deluxe hotel room.

Perhaps finding ourselves stranded by our taxi driver next to a dilapidated condominium near a sprawling trash heap on our first day was a somewhat challenging experience. Perhaps discovering that the taxi driver was not mistaken, and that this was indeed the condo we rented was pretty depressing. So were the bird-poo-covered pool, the not impressive five-minutes-away beach, and the bare-shelf grocery store. But because of those challenges and having come at the low season, I think we can say that in four days in the island we got to know its less touristy face quite well.

As the island empties of all but its inhabitants, it seems to release a big breath, like a bellows that has finished its work for the day. Stores shut their doors, small restaurants dim their lights, the chairs, umbrellas, and kayaks disappear from the beach. The island folds into itself, resting before the next horde of tourists.

Now at home, a part of me is left wondering at this island whose every effort seems aimed at tourism. I want to know: do the Bahamians ever go to the beach to swim and paddle and snorkel? Do they ever enjoy all the beauty that the island has to offer. The beach in Israel is full of bathing, jogging, walking, and otherwise having fun Israelis. Frenchmen kiss handsome Frenchwomen under the Tour D’Eiffel. Californians meander on the Golden Gate Bridge and eat dinner at overpriced restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf.

But on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the off season in Grand Bahama Island, the beach was deserted except for one lone woman selling cheaply-made wares under the shade of a coconut palm. And I couldn't help but wonder: don't the Bahamians swim in the ocean on the weekend? Do they ever go, just for fun, to check out the stores at the International Bazaar? Have they ever seen the dolphins at Unexso? Or do they just live day to day in service of those hordes of tourists that come without ever enjoying the bounty of the island for themselves?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review of Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen

For years, my sister believed that Robin Hood was a fox. The cause for her confusion is, of course, the Disney movie, Robin Hood. I, the book worm, knew better. To me, Robin Hood was a hero of a book, wearing a soft green buckskin cap and possessing unparalleled courage and faultless aim. Stealing from the rich to give to the poor, protecting the weak from the evil Prince John and his cohorts, living in the forest with other outlaws -- I could not admire Robin Hood more.

I read several rave reviews about A.C, Gaughen’s novel Scarlet and reluctantly put it on my to-read list. A novel in which Will Scarlet is actually a girl sounded intriguing, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to read a different version of Robin Hood. I didn’t know if I could take Will turning out to be a girl. In the end, however, I could not resist -- Scarlet popped up everywhere. And so I sat down and read.

Some books take time to get into, but once I succeed in melting into their world, I find I have sunk so deep that I cannot pull myself out when the book ends. That’s what happened to me with Scarlet. For the first three or four chapters I remained skeptical, but then I got sucked in, and for the two days that it took me to finish the book I lived in two completely separate universes: my everyday life and Scar’s in Sherwood Forest. The day after I finished the novel I felt disoriented. Really? No more Scar? No More Rob? I wanted to see their cave again, to see Scar running in the trees, Rob’s stormy ocean eyes, and listen to John Little flirt and joke.

Scarlet is a novel with a twist. I won’t tell you what it is, but the twist surprised me. Perhaps I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t, and when the time came, I just loved so much that I did not foresee it. So often, I know from the beginning of a book what the end will be, and all that is left for me is to watch how the author carries me to where I know we’re going. With Scarlet, thinking that I know the story and thus must know its end, I found myself completely fooled.

Much in Scarlet is about what makes a hero. A. C. Gaughen pushes the limits of how accountable to the townspeople Robin Hood and Scar feel, to the point where they must save every one, whether by gathering tax money (and keeping the villagers  from spending it before it is due), rescuing them from jail or the gallows, and bringing them food. I hope the next novel will continue exploring this superman-like theme, and I wish that Scar and Rob can find some relief from their feelings of guilt and over-responsibility.

Scarlet on GoodReads

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Beauty Without

My mother always says that in every yard, no matter how ugly or unmaintained, we can find something of beauty. I suppose it is a matter of what we focus on: the un-mown grass, the junk littering the balcony, or the few daffodils that manage to break the hard, dry soil and raise their sunshiny heads to the sky.

When I see those daffodils, I feel the power of the earth. I trust that after we’re gone, nature will take over. Flowers will break through concrete with beauty and color, and all our metal structures, our garbage heaps, our mines, those open wounds in the crust of the earth, will be forgotten in the healing energy of unbounded nature.

Sometimes I look at our river-spanning bridges, the clean skyline of our buildings, or the sumptuous buffet of a farmers market stall, and I think that we created a lot of beauty in this world. Different, perhaps, than the beauty that was here before us, but who am I to judge if different means wrong? Other times I wonder if the humanity-inflicted wounds on our earth can ever be healed.

Before arriving at Grand Bahama Island, I expected an island teeming with tropical beauty, gorgeous flowers mixing their scents with the salty air of the ocean, entwining plants climbing on palm trees to create a canopy of shade, and white sand beaches, the turquoise ocean merging with the blue, blue sky. But Grand Bahama Island is not quite like that.

Pool at our rental
Driving east and west of Freeport, a strange forest of low palm trees and tall, thin pines stretches as far as the eye can see, blocking out a view of the ocean. Only by turning off the main road did we discover the clear, turquoise waters that we expected: enchanting, open vistas, the waters calm and warm.

Interested in the strange flora, I searched the web for answers. I found that the first people to populate the Bahamas, the Lucayans, completely disappeared, either because of European illnesses for which they had no immunity or because they were removed from the island by the Spanish as slaves. After the American revolution, loyalists and their slaves came to the Bahamas and built cotton plantations. The lush forests which covered the island before their arrival have not regrown.

Had we stayed only on the beach, I could perhaps have ignored the shabby parts of the island, the dilapidation of years of hurricanes blowing through, the tired look of buildings battered by the salty air and the burning sun, or the human history that stopped the island’s natural evolution in place.

Trash heap in the street
Focus, I remind myself. Beauty is everywhere. And yet, though I can see the beauty of each and every palm and pine tree, the larger picture makes my heart sag, and I wish something could be done to return the natural beauty of this island to its former glory. I sit in the car, staring at the sparse forest rushing past the window, and the only thought that comes is: what a strange, strange land.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Focus: Abundance

My family and I love staying in vacation rentals. We can cook for ourselves, play games, watch television, go out in the yard. Those who wake up early can get up without waking those who want to sleep in. And sometimes there are extra bonuses like nearby playgrounds, pools, outdoor grills, or gorgeous backyards. We once stayed in a lovely cottage in San Diego. The yard was sumptuous with vegetable and herb gardens, fruit trees, and ornamental plants. The owner left us homemade jam and croissants on the counter. Windows opened up the view to the flowering outside.

It is easy to revel in abundance when abundance is spread before us to such perfection; much harder to practice when not everything is as we expect. In our vacation condo in Florida, tennis racquets and balls, a wide-screen TV, beach towels, two coffee machines, and an extremely well-stocked spice rack stood side to side with...  no hand soap in the bathrooms. Other necessary supplies were missing or limited. The wifi didn’t work. The dishwasher exploded in suds when we turned it on. In the balcony corners, mice droppings made us un-eager to go outside. When Dar spoke to the owner about these problems, the response was disbelief and an unwillingness to help out. 

While in Israel, my aunt told me this quote: “There is no such thing as problems. If you think there is a problem, then it has a solution and is no longer a problem. If there is no solution, then it is not a problem: it’s a fact.” Knowing how prone I am to ruminating about what is wrong, I forced myself to focus on what was wonderful and fun about the condo. Fact: I am not going to teach this condo’s owner abundance, but, fact: I can exercise abundance myself. And most importantly, I can do something about most of this.

In the morning, Dar drove to the grocery store and bought everything that we needed. 3G solved most of our WiFi needs and towels stacked before the dishwasher kept the floor dry. We made good use of the pool, the tennis court, and our kitchen. We enjoyed the good air streaming through the screens of the balcony doors and the movies, sports channels, and New Year program on the wide-screen TV. Without our attention, the cracks in the condo’s condition closed, and we could easily and simply have a great time.

It feels wonderful to focus like that. My attention, unhampered by mundane needs, can soar to the Florida wide skies, down to the colorful reefs of the deep blue ocean, and back up to the ever-shifting white clouds. I can blow with the wind in the palm fronds, swim with little skittering fish, and sit immovable in the mud like an old, lazy crocodile. But best of all is the freedom I found in the realization: who needs hand soap when the coast of Florida, from Key to Key, is open before us? Not we.