Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Gratitude Project

Day 18 – Food

Today was my actual birthday. I am now 40. Phew. The thing I look forward to most on my birthday is food! I give myself permission to eat anything I want on my birthday. This tradition started when I was a child. My family’s birthday deal – as I’m sure it was for many people – was that my Mom would make my favorite meal for dinner. From about the age of 10, the meal I requested was filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, mashed potatoes, and probably green beans. Yeah, I know, pretty bourgeois for a 10-year old. Of course, my sister’s favorite meal was lobster. I think I had béarnaise sauce (a rich, creamy, savory French sauce) at a fancy restaurant with my grandfather once and decided it was the pinnacle of taste sensations. It is a bitch to make though – lots of whisking. More evidence of my mother’s tremendous devotion and patience.

Today’s meals weren’t quite as fancy as yesteryear’s, but still plenty tasty. Bacon and bread w/ honey for breakfast. Roasted leek soup, Croque Monsieur, and heirloom tomato salad for lunch (c’mon, this is California afterall). Indian takeout and chocolate cake for dinner. A whole day full of serious yumminess.

And not only am I grateful for the feasts of the day, I’m grateful that I have such unlimited access to high-quality food. Recent reports indicate that 37 million Americans (or 1 in 8) have unstable access to adequate food. I have no idea what the numbers are worldwide - although my sister does. She used to work for an organization called Bread for the World, whose focus is on advocacy and policy to end world-wide hunger. Check it out. Most of us are richer than we know in so many ways. It’s good to feast. And it’s good to remember that others need help to find their place at the table.

Photo: Shamima Desai


Monday, September 20, 2010

Gratitude Project
Day 17 – Labor

My sister just sent me an exciting email. Her friend J is in the early stages of labor with her first child. My sister was about to head to J’s house to offer some help, and she wanted ideas (from a veteran of 2 labors) for how to be of use and comfort to her friend. It’s a mystical coincidence, because tonight is the night before my birthday – the night of my mother’s back labor with her first child 40 years ago. In Judaism, holidays start the night before the day. Interestingly, most labors also start at night – in the quiet midnight to dawn hours when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. I am grateful for my own labors – 44 hours with Gman and 35 hours with Miss V – which were some of the most difficult nights (and days) of my life – but which also taught me about my own resilience, and about the tremendous value of giving yourself over to an experience rather than trying to control it. I’m sending out love and positive energy to J tonight. I hope her labor will be both a good teacher to her and become a positive part of her life story.


Sunday, September 19, 2010


Gratitude Project

Day 16 – Worship

I was raised as a Presbyterian. Most Sunday mornings of my childhood were spent in Church – in Sunday school or in the youth choir. I went on youth retreats – weekend ski trips and summer bible camp. I was even a youth elder – an honorary leader of the church. When I went to college, I took both my first religion class and my first women’s studies course, and doubts I’d had about the gender politics of church teachings blossomed into a full-scale mental rebellion. I stopped going to church. I became a Religion major in order to “work out” my anger and anxiety about the theology I had been raised with.

In my 20’s I remained a stalwart agnostic, although I dabbled in Goddess religion and occasionally joined a Catholic friend at her church “for the music.” My then-boyfriend-now-husband is Jewish, so I also participated in family rituals and occasional services with him. But I never quite felt at home in any of these spiritual settings. I had a lot of friends who were similarly disillusioned with their religions of origin. We shared our frustration about the idea that the religion you are raised (no matter how much you dislike it) might always hold the most sway over you in terms of its ability to light up your divinity sensors.

But the older I get, the less hung-up I am on labels, on definitions, on theological precepts. What I look forward to now is the chance to worship with other people. I feel kind of uncomfortable even using the word worship, because it sounds so formal, so church-y. But I don’t know another word that can adequately express the experience of communally engaging with the divine.

Today I went to Yom Kippur services at a wonderful Jewish Renewal synagogue. The congregation and its gregarious leader consider themselves “spiritual progressives.” They welcome everyone – Jewish, non-Jewish, white, black, Asian, gay, straight – and they spend a lot of time focusing on how and why Judaism is relevant in the world today. They do a lot of singing during the services – which I really love – singing opens my heart like nothing else.

I am grateful for the chance to stand today and repent last year’s sins. For the chance to put my arms around a stranger and sway back and forth singing Lai Lai Lai. For the chance huddle close to a group of my fellow congregants under our prayer shawls while receiving an ancient blessing. For the chance to sit in the car before services and apologize to my husband for all the ways I disregarded and disrespected his humanity this year. For the chance to sit next to him in services, hand in hand, promising to do better this year. For the opportunity to spiritually re-boot my life once a year.

And I am aware that if it weren’t for all the many other moments of worship I have experienced – all those other moments standing with others speaking and singing and praying – I wouldn’t have been so primed today to be engaged and receptive to the experience on offer. Thanks Mom and Dad for encouraging me to participate in the Church as a child. Thanks Universe for continually floating opportunities for spiritual expression my way (despite my frequent attempts to avoid them). Thanks to the Rabbi and the Congregation for being so welcoming and inclusive to an outsider. Thanks to G-d, whatever you are, for singing to me through some many different instruments.


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Gratitude Project

Day 15 – Off the Hook

So, this blog project isn’t working out quite the way I had imagined it would. I thought that surely I would be able to find 30 minutes everyday, or at least every other day, to write about what I’m grateful for and to reflect about the deeper meaning of my life in the 40 days before turning 40. But as it turns out, this was wishful thinking. My life has about 30 spare minutes every 2 weeks, not every day. I’ve been behind on this project from Day 2, back-dating all my posts, continually promising myself that tomorrow or this weekend I’ll catch up. But I never do.

And so, this seems an appropriate moment to express my gratitude for being let off the hook. Throughout my life, many people have offered me some kind of essential relief in a moment when I felt stretched to the breaking point. Sometimes these heroes and heroines of forgiveness were relatives or friends. But often they were people I barely knew. Like the Dean of Students at my undergraduate university, who I visited at the end of nearly every semester, asking for an extension on a paper or exam. “Um…I’m doing this play, and it’s been taking up more time than I expected, and I haven’t really had the time to study properly, so I was wondering…” In my memory, she barely even hassled me. She just looked me in the eye and asked “Is this important to you?” And when I shyly and truthfully answered that theater was the most important thing in the world to me, she signed the extension papers, and gave me the out I needed so that I wouldn’t collapse. I wish I could remember her name. I know that I made her chocolate truffles – by hand – as a thank you gift when I graduated. I try to channel her calm and forgiving energy whenever I have an exhausted and over-wrought student in my office making desperate excuses.

One of my mother’s most inspired sayings is “You can renegotiate your choices at any moment.” This idea – that it is never to late to readjust, rewrite, revamp or otherwise transform one’s choices – is a critical mental escape hatch that has prevented me from suffering as much as I might have in my life. Because I am my own worst torturer. I badger, berate, and belittle myself about goals unaccomplished, plans gone awry, hopes unfulfilled. In my 30’s, when I was often working 6 jobs at the same time for too many hours and too little pay, I internalized the concept of letting things go. But they were always little things – items on the to-do list, small goals. In my 40’s, I hope to discover the value of letting even bigger things go – of letting myself off the hook as often as I can.

So, I am letting myself off the hook about trying to finish this project before I turn 40 (in 5 days!). Instead, I will aim to complete it while I'm 40. So that I can spend more time savoring and less time wiggling and worrying. I will appreciate and uphold the goal, and forgive myself for not succeeding at te first attempt.

Photo: Jorden Harper


Thursday, August 26, 2010


Gratitude Project
Day 14 – Father

I am grateful for my Father – Dad – Daddio as I playfully call him. He was a warm, loving, and protective presence in my early childhood years – playing guitar lullabies to help me sleep, hiking with me and my mother in the Blue Ridge mountains, listening with bright eyes and encouraging words to all my stories and needs. One of my earliest memories is the warmth of my father’s hand in mine after the cold metal of the swingset chains on a fall day.

During my teenage years, he was slow to anger, quick to forgive, and long on patience. I remember coming home with my first speeding ticket at 16, petrified by my own mistake and the prospect of losing a precious new freedom. He listened to my story, sympathized with my fear, and then helped me brainstorm better driving practices for the future. His slow, calm, rationale approach to problems offered valuable counterbalance to my more emotional and intense responses.

But one of the deepest and most unexpected gratitudes I carry for my Dad is the fact that he forced me to play basketball. When I started high school, he turned to me – his bookish, artsy, and clutzy daughter – and said “It’s time for you to play a team sport.” I thought he had lost his mind. My father had never required that I do any particular activity before. Couldn’t he see that I was hopelessly uncoordinated? That I had no business trying to do anything sport-related? I got to choose the sport –because I’m tall basketball seemed the obvious choice – but Dad wasn’t satisfied with just one season - he made me play for 3 years! I stunk up the LM Junior Varsity Team that whole time, despite endless wind sprints and backyard ball-handling drills. The sweet and ineffectual JV coach even had a mantra ready for the infrequent occasions when I got my hands on the ball – “Okay ‘Tine, pass it, PASS IT, don’t dribble!!!”

But as it turns out, basketball was the start of many good things in my life. It was my entryway to joining Crew, a sport which I did like, and which I was good at. My 3 years of toil on the basketball court also taught me many valuable lessons about perseverance, and the satisfaction that comes from working hard to overcome obstacles. The basketball team was also my first experience collaborating with others – an activity that has become central to my artistic life. Dad really knew what he was doing.

As I deal with the many parenting challenges that my 2-year old and 6-year old lob at me daily, I try to keep the image of my patient, loving, and occasionally brilliantly insistent Dad in the back of my mind – a little beacon to remind me that while I will do some things wrong as a parent, I will also do much that is right.

Photo: Dad reading to Miss V (age 18 months)


Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Gratitude Project
Day 13 – Luck

I’m grateful for good luck. I’ve always been mildly superstitious/spiritual, but only in an optimistic sense. In other words, I look for good omens but ignore the bad ones! And there are always lots of ways one can view one’s luck as good – in fact, good luck is really just another name for the expression of gratitude.

But I am also aware of luck as a cosmic force – one that gives some people more hardship to deal with than others. Many religions have a version of “there but for the grace of G-d, go I”, that quintessential reminder of the thin line that separates the fortunate from the unfortunate. When I think about my own luck, I tend to think of cross-roads events that I either experienced or avoided, which have deeply affected the course of my life. Here is a short-list of good luck I have experienced in my life:

• I was born to two educated and mostly healthy parents
• I have never experienced a serious illness or injury
• I had no pregnancies prior to the two intended ones
• I have always found a job (eventually) when I needed one
• I have a partner who is engaged and committed to our family
• Whenever I lose touch with a friend, another one comes into my life
• Both my parents are alive and know their grandchildren

When I was a little girl, I attended Sunday school, where we learned about poverty in Africa. I often wondered why I had been born in a particular time and place with so many resources, and why there were other children who were living very different and extremely more difficult lives. I still wonder all the time about this question as an adult. “Unto whom much is given, much is expected.” I don’t know why I have experienced all this good luck in my life. I am trying to be grateful for what I have. But as I shift into the 2nd half of my life, I am also trying to wake up to what this luck is asking – expecting – of me.

Photo: by KagedFish


Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Gratitude Project

Day 12 - New Beginnings

I’m a sucker for new beginnings…I’ve written about this before. I believe at their core, people are either fundamentally pessimistic or optimistic. For all my existential angst and attraction to the darker side of life, I find hope continually bobbing up inside me like an irrepressible cork. I am grateful to the universe and to my DNA for whatever chemical cocktail allows this to be so.

Of all new beginnings, the beginning of the school year is my favorite. I used to be so excited before the first day of school that I couldn’t sleep all night. I agonized over my first day outfit. I loved going to Mapes, my local 5 and 10, and squeezing through the crowds in the narrow aisles to pick out my school supplies. Because each time the school year started, it was a chance to become a new person, to re-write (and improve) the script.

One of the great things about the job I now have - university professor - is that I get to continue living by the familiar academic calendar. I am guaranteed two new beginnings a year, two chances to become a better teacher, a kinder advisor, a more thoughtful colleague, a more efficient worker, a smarter and more articulate person.

A fresh start. There is nothing else like it. A get-out-of-jail-free, leave-all-your-mess-behind, finally-get-to-be-your-best-self new day.

Photo: Michael Josh Villaneuva


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