Greetings From South Carolina!

The land of pecan trees, cotton fields, peanut farms, Hell Hole Swamp, fried green tomatoes and all those lost and forgotten sparsely populated towns where the oh-so-many “for rent” signs in the equally lost and forgotten storefront windows tell that all too familiar story of hard times. And if that shit wasn’t enough, it’s also where for the past thirty days the world of puddles and mo-squitoes has taken on a whole different meaning for me and anyone else that dares to brave it.

FEMA photo

As a FEMA Reservist, I came here as a visitor. Someone whose time and care is limited. I can look around at all that’s good and all that’s distressing with a certain detached yet observing eye because I know my stay is temporary. I don’t have to endure this life. I’m only passing through.

But in no way do I not feel impacted by it.

Trust me when I say there’s nothing quite like standing in the middle of someone’s house, seeing what used to be the entire contents stacked high in one massive moldy pile of wood and fabric, completely destroyed, while contaminated water trickles down from a shanty roof barely holding its own, to make things crystal fucking clear in your head—if they weren’t already. That and doing a job which requires ten hours a day, seven days a week of tramping across mud, plowing through thigh-high grass imbedded with fire ant hills, knocking on doors, passing out flyers, talking to people faster than the speed of light for fear that if you don’t, the friggin’ mosquitos swarming around you will make their way into your mouth before you have a chance to close it.

Welcome to the life of a DSA Reservist. Glory job this isn’t. That’s for make-sure-you’re-wearing-lots-of-bug-spray damn sure.

I’ve been asked numerous times why I do this work. And, you know, the answer’s always the same. I love what I do. It keeps me grounded, gives me purpose, makes me feel as if I’m actually helping someone in some way and given all that, I honestly believe, if come the end of my deployment I’ve made a difference in just one person’s life, well then . . . I know I’ve done my job.

And well.

Giving without any sense of expectation is so much more joyfully rewarding. I didn’t always understand that. I didn’t always realize the true prize was in the small miracle of a smile, of a simple thank you. But now I do. And like most things, there are those learning curves you either take or throw away by choice and as I ease into humility mode in the face of nature’s destructive force in South Carolina I carry with me my bucket of life tools hearing the echo of my FEMA brothers’ and sisters’ words ring in my ears: “whether it’s one disaster or a hundred, the goal is always the same. Go in, do your best, reach out any way you can, to as many as you can. And you’ll see, the people you encounter will change your life far more drastically than you’ll ever change theirs.”

Hurricane Sandy brought that message home to me. It tore me up, then consumed with the kind of gut-wrenching emotions I’d once felt myself incapable of. And when I walked away, I was forever transformed in a way I’m not sure how to explain other than to say it was illuminatingly profound. There would never be any going back to whoever I was before that step into the light. And while my deployment here has been an altogether different experience for me, the people are not any less needy, or the mayhem surrounding them any less jarring.

So I know when my time is up here, I will once again leave renewed by it. By the absoluteness of its reminder just how thankful I am for all that I have. There are no regrets (well not anymore), no looking back wondering about all the decisions I didn’t make, along with the should haves and the could haves, because to wish upon all that pointless stuff, would simply negate the beautiful blessings that happened to me somewhere in between.

A friend recently told me: “There are no wrong decisions.” And, of course, he’s right. But, this too, isn’t something one readily wraps their brain around since it’s the kind of knowing that comes with falling and peeling your face off the floor one too many mornings before it hits you over the head. Granted some of us might not need to go off the deep end to figure these things out, while others do for the simple reason it’s in their genetic make-up. My younger hippy self free-floating aimlessly like tumbleweed, would never have listened then as she felt turning on and tuning out was the cool thing to do before being forced to join that much-dreaded establishment she knew awaited her. Therefore she missed the boat on so many things. Many critical choices that went hand-in-hand to a future landscape she couldn’t possibly envision. Not then. Not stoned or straight. She simply never saw them.

So all we can do is push on. Accept ourselves and all our perfect imperfections with loving grace. And after a lifetime of much soul-searching I feel I finally have done that. Well, at least enough to say out loud: I like who I am (wobbly bits and all). I like my life and this thrilling place I’ve finally arrived at. That I have been fortunate to live long enough to see my children grow, to hold a granddaughter, to travel to all those magnificent places I’ve dreamed about, to write a book, to stand up and be counted.

What more can any of us really ask for, then that?

They say when you reach a certain age you come to realize that despite all the crazy twists and turns you take along the journey of life, that all roads still lead you to exactly where you are now.

cotton fields of south carolina

Well, if that’s true . . . then I guess I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Here. Traveling on my road, one both rural and favored by God’s green earth that I can easily imagine someone like Woody Guthrie singing about or Jack Kerouac writing about (on a new roll of toilet paper, hopefully) at some point. But should Woody or Jack not step up to the plate to do their stuff, no worries, I will. I’m told I can’t carry a tune worth a shit, but I do have some potential with a pen.

We shall see.

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Split to the Core

As a young girl growing up in New York, I was required to attend Hebrew School. My parents, following in the tradition of their parents, their upbringing, felt that this was where I belonged every Sunday morning, and as I got older, every Wednesday evening as well. They must have imagined I’d miraculously absorb the sense of God somewhere within those walls. Had they known then that I would turn into such a doubting Thomas and forsake the idea of any God, I absolutely believe they would have put their time and money to much better use.

In those early years before I hit the age of twelve, I admit I was a believer in all things magical. My young mind hadn’t yet the wings to think for itself. So, I listened in awe to the telling of all those magnificent Bible stories. Joshua and the Battle of Jericho. The Maccabees and Chanukkah. Noah and his Ark (scratch that Russell Crowe version from the brain. K?). David and Goliath. Bathsheba. I loved them all because they were the seeds from which I sprang.

Holidays were celebrated with the appropriate pomp and ritual. Family and friends would gather around the table on Passover with my father at the head reading through the prayer book, and us kids at the other end wanting the whole shebang over with as quickly as possible so that we could run off in search of the afikoman (matzo) and the dollar bill to whoever found it first.

Nothing then made me want to challenge the universe in which I lived. A universe which as I transitioned from blissfully ignorant childhood to painfully awkward pre-teen hood, had me too distracted and grappling with the uncertainty of my place and who I was in this perky-nosed, skinny, straight-haired world where you were only as good as the body you lived in, to be bothered with anything else.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most religious of upbringings. Even though my father came from Orthodox roots and my mother’s side kept a Kosher home. I imagine that this second-generation from which both my parents stemmed were so caught up in the aftermath of a war, digging their heels into Middle America and keeping up with the Smiths and not so much the Cohens, that they didn’t deem it quite so necessary to be as religious as their parents. So I grew up following a minimal Judaic practice. Which entailed only celebrating and observing the most significant holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Chanukkah); going to Temple on only two of them; and lastly being Bat Mitzvahed. (Not sure if that’s a word here folks, so just go it. Thanks!)

And while it seemed all my Jewish peers were doing pretty much the same thing, following this quasi Jew for a day routine, the closer I got toward that pinnacle point of standing in front of a whole congregation of faces I did and didn’t know, reciting a portion of the Haftorah, pledging my commitment to God on my thirteenth birthday, somewhere in between my direction of heart changed. Changed in a way that came as swiftly as learning the Easter Bunny didn’t exist, and as profoundly with its unspeakable dawning that I found myself pivoting away from all that I had known, to search out something more, something impactful that made sense to me. I mean “real” sense.

As you can imagine this upset my parents terribly. While they might have been tourists in their own faith, they still saw themselves as Jews and couldn’t understand my growing need that now led me down a different path toward Buddhism. A path that didn’t materialize right away, rather manifested itself over time after dabbling in numerous abstract schools of philosophy way above my mental pay grade, first. They were horrified to see me kneel before an “alter,” which in reality was the Gohonzon. An encasement that symbolically “reflects the state of Buddhahood inherent in life.” They couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to be welcomed into this world of thinking disciples, who like myself were also seeking an alternate road to that “something more” that didn’t require a belief in a mystical being—only a belief in myself.

That I remained a practicing Buddhist for many years in my OCD world where it’s impossible for me to stay true to anything longer than a minute, was a major feat. When I walked away though, I didn’t walk away empty-handed. I carried a deeper understanding of who I was and would always be. A Jew. Those are my roots right down to my core, an inescapable fact of my being.

In truth, people search their whole lives for all sorts of reasons. For justifications on why things happen the way they do? What does it all mean? What’s our purpose here? It’s simply part of the process. And because asking those questions for which there are no right answers, will only drive you bonkers. I learned that one the hard way. On my sister’s deathbed. So, I simply don’t go there anymore.

How do any of us figure things out, if it isn’t the hard way?

Many times when we view life in retrospect, it’s pretty damn easy to all be bloody geniuses with crystal balls the size of Texas. And for me, it seems almost comical, ironic even and yet not, that I had to travel so far to learn what had been there all along. My mother used to constantly shake her head at my “pigheadedness,” she called it. Always fearing that late night call from the police that I’d be lying in a ditch somewhere. I just don’t know how to do things any other way. Taking the easy route means nothing, sweating out the victories means everything. Even if the conclusion is the same.

Because you see . . . it’s all about the road trip getting there. I had to determine for myself what those defining parts were in order to come to this particular place I’m now standing. A place of bittersweet understanding of my role and my own concept of what it truly means to be a Jew. A person who’s only real job is to carry the cherished stories of my heritage with me wherever I go. And should I somehow pass this sense of embodiment onto my children . . . well, then . . . two points for me!

Look, I realize the sensitivity of this topic. And believe me when I say, “to each his own,” that they are words spoken with the utmost of sincerity. This is what makes this wonderfully, crazy, ridiculous world of ours so great. Or should be great, that we can feel okay about expressing our opinions free of fear and recrimination. When you look at the kaleidoscopic landscape of our society, seeing how different all these moving parts are—all shapes, sizes and flavors—you know, you just gotta love the beauty of it.

In any case, today is Rosh Hashanah. And I will celebrate it. Celebrate the small part I play in this remarkable tribe of people. Celebrate the big nose that got lopped off, the beginning of our New Year, the anniversary marking of Adam and Eve’s creation. And regardless of your race, religion and slant on reality, I wish 365 days of health, prosperity, peace, love and happiness to you all.

L’shanah tovah!

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Living The Life of Right

“Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.”

— Anais Nin


I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who hasn’t suffered in some way or who hasn’t been forced to face those extreme hardships that come hand-in-hand with the territory. And I definitely can’t imagine someone not having a story to tell, because there’s one in all of us.

Perhaps some are more glamorous, more intriguing, more heartbreaking than others, but it’s there, nevertheless. Right below the surface of our everyday moments. Filled with such sweeping colors, magnificent light, gusting winds, music, beauty, and misery across those Grand Canyon plateaus that somehow mark us with their presence then propel us forward, despite our feet begging not to go one step further.

But we must. So we do.

I’ve always imagined a shorter life than the one I’ve been given. Maybe the man upstairs decided my sorry ass had a greater purpose. And so in the interim, I stand on my own little piece of terra firma as a witness to everyone else’s story, doing what I do, soaking in all that surrounds me like a precious gift. Because I think that’s what life is, a gift. It’s easy for us to not always view it that way; especially when we’re drowning in despair or dodging all those curveballs suddenly in our faces. But it is. It’s another joyous moment where we get to breathe and if we’re lucky enough, we just might also do something miraculous.

This past April, I saw the movie, Woman in Gold. It was impactful then, and now months later seeing it again, I found it to be no less so. Based upon a remarkable true story of one woman’s quest to seek justice for what had happened to her and her family during WWII, Maria Altmann’s (Helen Mirren) story unfolds sixty years after she fled Vienna as she hires a young and inexperienced lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her retrieve several family-owned paintings that had been seized by the Nazis. However, the movie focuses on one in particular. It was of her aunt and titled: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The artist was the masterfully talented Gustav Klimt. Not only had this particular painting become famous (the Mona Lisa of Austria), but it had been on display in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, for decades.

As a little side note that some of you might already know (especially if you’ve seen the movie, The Monuments Men with George Clooney), during the war, Nazi Germany had implemented a systematic and widespread looting campaign of valuable artwork belonging not only to the Jews, but all occupied countries. Over the years, they amassed so many pieces that it took more than 1000 repositories across Austria and Germany to secretly house them all. And when the war ended, the artwork was discovered and international laws dealing with art restitution were soon passed. The project itself was and still is a colossal undertaking. And while numerous pieces have been identified and handed over to the respective countries from which they were confiscated in the hope of eventually finding their way back to their rightful owner, unfortunately as of today, it has been estimated that well over 100,000 works of great art still have not been returned.

Perhaps some might view the retrieval of stolen property as insignificant in comparison to the bigger picture; being that Maria Altmann was luckier than most—she lived. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, they would be right. However, as I sat in the movie theatre becoming more and more entrenched in the layers of her story peeling away, something else became glaringly clear.

What had been taken from her wasn’t the tangible at all. But the link to her history. And without it, Maria knew she would remain lost in the shadows of a life where blissful memories and terrifying experiences would lay buried, if she didn’t do something to make it right.

Okay. Sure. This is a message we’ve heard countless times before. Told through stories by Holocaust survivors, movies, books. Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields,” Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Native Americans. The genocides, the mass atrocities. Stories we’re not likely to forget, and yet like most things, they somehow still manage to get muted into the background, like yesterday’s news. And it’s exactly because of this inevitability that I believe every now and again it’s vital that we bring them back to the surface to remind ourselves, and more importantly to educate the next generation, our children and our children’s children; before lovingly passing it into their arms for safekeeping.

No, my dear friends, we can never forget. I don’t ever want to forget. Because if I do, then, well, I deny its existence and, therefore, I deny myself. It’s as simple as that. The past might be in the past, but it is who we are.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie where Randy Schoenberg is in Vienna standing before the Restitution Mediation panel, with the eyes and ears of all Austria watching on as he delivers his final plea before a ruling is made on who is the rightful heir to the painting: Maria Altmann or Austria. It’s one of those compelling David versus Goliath moments we all love. Whether it comes to us in life or in a movie, doesn’t seem to matter. The effect is the same. Rousing some unseen force from within, and shakes us silly. And in this case, in this eloquent “sins of our father” speech, the new world thinking of the present was reminding the old world values of the past that a war had been waged, that millions had undeniably been exterminated, that the citizens of Austria blindly participated, and what they now needed to do in order to bring about a healing closure, not only for Maria Altmann or the Jewish people, but for themselves as a culture, once and for all. Acknowledge their wrong.

Many years ago, as a young woman living in Mexico, I remember being in a restaurant with some people I knew, some I’d just met. Upon introduction, I realized that the young man sitting to my right was from Germany. All throughout dinner, I couldn’t look at him, let alone say two words. It wasn’t as if I’d led a sheltered life or that I’d lost people in the war. Because that wasn’t the case at all. And yet, for some inexplicable, some irrational reason, at that moment, his face and Hiltler’s were one and the same. All night I fought against this misplaced anger. And he obviously sensed my inner turmoil, because at some point afterwards, when I was standing alone near the bar, he came over to me, and just like that, he apologized.

“For what?” I asked, confused. “For what my people did to yours.”

Woman in Gold isn’t just a story about the Holocaust or the importance of family heirlooms. It’s about reclamation of heritage. It’s about justice, plain and simple. Standing up for what’s right. That’s what Maria Altmann did in such a Herculean way against so many forces, despite the undeniable odds. And that’s what makes this story so powerful, so inspiring for me. I wanted to pick up my stick and do battle, right there and then.

Many times in our everyday lives we’re forced to face the unthinkable. But does that standing up to those things make us better human beings or simply hammer in how far we still need to go? It’s not enough just to do the good deeds, to live the right life. Giving a helping hand to a friend, working at shelters, caring for those human and non-human beings who can’t help themselves, yes . . . are commendable acts—even necessary. But I somehow don’t imagine these things alone are enough. We must do more. We must stretch our moral fiber beyond those comfortable borders, when the moment arises.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

— Haruki Murakami


All of us share this same type of desire: to stand up against what’s wrong in the world. I think it’s part of our DNA. And yet many cannot, many do not—for whatever reason.

Look, I don’t feel that my pain is greater than anyone else’s. We’ve all had a look at the dark side. It’s not pretty. And the moment I rest on that lollapalooza, I’m finished. Okay? Standing in judgment is simply not the way to go. Not for me anyway. How each one of us chooses to lead the best possible life is a decision only we can make and, ultimately, something we all have to live with. Whether it’s standing on the sidelines or in the thick of those messy things, wielding a sword, I will love you all the same.

Me? I prefer messy. But, hey . . . what do I know? I’m the girl walking around with the fuzzy Dumbo hat on her head, sipping fruity martinis.

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