Out of the Zone


The rickety wooden staircase leads to nowhere. But that isn’t the problem. Not really. There are only three stairs, and while they are made of little more than splintering 2-by-4s thrown together with a few rusty nails, they look solid enough to hold a person, or even two. And I know they are stable — I’d seen my husband and two of my kids walk down them only minutes before.

So I know they don’t really lead to nowhere. But when all that’s between the last creaky step and the firm ground 72 feet below is a beautiful but flimsy canopy of bright-green leaves, it is challenging to think rationally.

At least for me.

No, the wooden staircase to nowhere is not the problem. The problem is I don’t like being too high up. I never have. Most of the time I like to feel my two feet — or hands, or knees, or some part of me — fixed to the earth. I like to take deep breaths, and close my eyes and feel steady. It’s where I’m most comfortable, most myself.

I don’t go on rollercoasters and I hate the flying swing at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and if I find myself at the top of the Empire State Building or walking across the Golden Gate Bridge (because how can you visit New York City or San Francisco and not do either of those things), I never go too close to the edge.

Of course, I do have to leave the safety of my solid and unmoving comfort zone, usually to take a flight or to swim in the bay. My heart races a little and my fingers tingle and the blood rushes in my ears for a few seconds, but I can feel the airplane seat beneath me or the salty water around me, and I breathe and close my eyes and my heart slows and I can keep going.

And yet here I am. Some 6 dozen feet above the earth, standing on the edge of a wobbly staircase, with really nothing between me and the safe ground below because even though those lovely green leaves are full of light and energy, they will do little more than gently wave as I fly past them. I’m about to leap so far out of my comfort zone I wonder if I’ll ever return. And I’m terrified.

I am in a harness, I try to reassure myself, and I am safely strapped to a zipline with multiple cables. I carefully watched as the guide strapped me in, checked and then checked again. My head tells me over and over that I cannot fall through the forest, that I can only soar above the treetops and land safely on the platform on the other side. Most of the trees I will fly over are close to 1,000 years old.

Two of my kids are waiting for me at the other end of this zipline. It’s 250 yards long, the longest on this treetop tour. Two are waiting for me to take the leap. I don’t want to do it. My heart is pounding, my ears are roaring, and all I can think of is the nothingness I will feel around me as I zoom down the line.

“Mom, are you OK? It’s your turn,” my daughter looks at me with worry in her green-gray eyes. She knows I’m scared. I think she is too, a little. But her eyes are bright, more green than gray, and she looks happy and alive. With my encouragement, my kids venture out of their comfortable spaces all the time, and always without regret. They try out for teams and plays, they go snowboarding and waterskiing, they learn Torah, they try new foods, they go to sleep-away camp… I can do this.

I propel myself forward off the edge of the step and into the rushing warm air. For 20 seconds all I can see and smell are thousands of gorgeous trees, their leaves waving encouragingly. I smile and reach my arms out wide. I close my eyes and breathe. It’s magical here, high above my comfort zone.

This essay first appeared on Jweekly.com.

Yoga Wisdom for Summer Vacation: Balance and Breathe


“Identify your right arm from your left and don’t mix them up!” The instruction is clear. I’m relieved someone is telling me what to do, especially so early in the morning. “Swing your right arm underneath your left, cross at the wrists.” With varying degrees of effort and success, we do as she says.

It was the chaos of the beginning of the school year that motivated me to seek strength and mindfulness in the very hot yoga studio, where the only sounds are the instructor’s voice and my own breathing as I struggle to stand on one foot with the other wrapped around my calf and my arms twisted like ropes in front of my face. Somehow this is easier than figuring out afternoon carpool or getting my kids to school on time every morning. These things still need to happen, but once you’ve made even small progress in eagle pose, even the impossible seems possible!

A full school year later, I’m still here on my yoga mat, trying to balance and breathe and focus on nothing except those two things. If only for the duration of the class.

We move from eagle to standing bow. I try to stretch my leg above my head and lower my upper body toward the floor, at the same time. My breath comes in short gasps, and my heart races. The cardiovascular part of class they call this, like it’s a good thing. I feel that I need to lie down immediately. The posture is over before I know it, and I take a deep breath and listen for the next instruction.

“Be in it,” I hear the wise instructor say, above the deep inhales and exhales around me. “Really be in the posture when you’re in it. Don’t hang out, waiting for it to be over.” I think she’s talking directly to me.

Summer is here, and I think about the truths I’ve discovered while breathing and balancing in that hot room. Gentle prompts that remind me how to get the most out of every day, every experience, every moment. Small reminders perfect for a bunch of kids on summer vacation. What’s true in the yoga studio is usually true outside of it too.

“If you can, you must,” is my favorite yoga teacher’s mantra. If you are physically able to touch your forehead to your knees, do it! If your spine is able to bend backwards, bend! If there are new friends to make and new foods to try, go for it! Wonderful and exciting opportunities may present themselves to you this summer. If your body and heart are able, seize them. Your life will be fuller, richer, brighter. If you can, you must.

All yoga instructors teach: “Where your eyes go, your body will follow.” This is for you, my often cautious daughter, as you stand at the edge of the pool wondering if you’ll clear a good distance when you dive. It’s for you, my fearless son, as you descend the half pipe on your skateboard: don’t forget to look up! And it’s for you, my youngest and oldest, as you embark on new adventures – your first time at sleep away camp, your first time as a CIT (counselor in training): look ahead, look beyond, look for something new. Where your eyes go, your body will follow.

As we stand on our mats in the yoga studio we are always reminded to be considerate to our fellow yogis. To make sure the people behind us can see themselves in the mirror. To not enter or exit the class during a pose, as it is distracting. To take care of others. As we head into summer, look out for each other. Look out for your friends. Offer help, a hug or a high five! Share your food, your water, your bug spray and sunscreen. Share your love and yourself. Be kind. Take care.

The summer promises to be as busy as the school year. There will be fun adventures and new experiences for all of us. And I will continue to practice yoga. Because if I can balance and breathe inside the yoga studio, I can probably do the same outside of it too.


This piece originally appeared on J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

The Journey


Six duffel bags lay waiting at the front door, most already zipped shut and sealed. Like six enthusiastic but well-behaved children, the slick gray canvas and blue trim of each shone quietly and excitedly, ready to go. One remained open, just in case. I spied a beloved stuffed animal squashed into a corner, and the sleeve of the raggedy t-shirt I told him not to pack peeked out from a pile of socks. That looked like way too many socks.

“Can I close this?” My husband was ready to go too. I knew he was anxious about transporting the six of us and all our luggage across the world. So was I. Not for the first time, I wondered if it was worth it.

The flight was long, 15 hours, and even though one of the best things to happen to the Bay Area is the now direct flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, it felt like we had embarked on an endless and strangely unknown journey. Suddenly I wasn’t at all sure we were doing the right thing.

We were en route to Israel to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah. He had spent most Mondays over the past year preparing for this important day, learning how to sing his Torah portion and delving into its meaning with the rabbi. Like all bar mitzvah boys, he had worked hard at mastering the trop and understanding what it meant to reach this milestone, and I knew he was both excited and nervous.

As was I. From afar, we had planned what we hoped would be a special celebration at the Kotel in Jerusalem, but of course we had no idea if anything would work out as planned! What if we couldn’t find a Torah that morning? There are dozens of bar mitzvahs celebrated at the Kotel every Thursday, what if we couldn’t find a good spot? What if our friends and family couldn’t find us? And this winter was a particularly wet one in Israel – what if it rained?

As we dragged our bags along the wet sidewalk to the line of taxis at Ben Gurion Airport, I fleetingly wondered if perhaps we should’ve done this at home in California…

The sky that morning was bright and blue, and the absence of clouds meant that the air was cold and brisk. I shivered in my jacket and my cousin wrapped her scarf around my neck. We stood together and watched the bar mitzvah boy recite the blessing before reading the Torah. His father and grandfather stood proudly on either side of him, as if to guide him along this spiritual journey, and uncles, cousins and friends surrounded him in a circle of warmth and love. The fringes of his tallit (prayer shawl) waved gently in the wind, and behind him the Western Wall rose large and impressive, as it has for thousands of years – an enduring testament to our customs, traditions and beliefs.

I tore my eyes away from my boy for a few minutes, and watched the celebrations happening around us. I counted at least five bar mitzvahs near us, and a large group of young girls danced in a circle close to the wall. I spied a chuppah procession slowly making its way along the plaza above us. Tears, laughter, and jubilant cries of “Mazal tov” filled the cool air, and through the noise I heard my son’s now low voice singing the end of his Torah portion.

“Mazal tov!” we clapped and yelled as we showered him with candy and wishes of love and happiness. My mother and sister kissed me, aunts and cousins hugged me, and complete strangers joined our festivities and wished us and our man of honor well. Holding the Torah firmly in his arms, my son looked up at me, his brown eyes shining in the bright, winter sun. He stood there below the Kotel, handsome and proud, now a Jewish man part of a great, worldwide Jewish community.

The journey from the East Bay to Jerusalem and back again is a long one. As we trudged up the stairs to our front door, lugging bags filled with Wissotzky tea, Israeli za’atar and halva from the Carmel market, I remembered my apprehension at the beginning of our trip. How I had worried about the weather and the flight and what had we forgotten and what if everything didn’t go according to plan?

What I hadn’t planned was the tremendous connection we all felt as we stood at the Kotel on that cold, sunny Thursday: connection to each other, to our history, to the land of our people, and to all the hundreds and thousands of Jewish people celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, togetherness, not only at the Kotel on that day but every day around the world. More than worth it.

A version of this essay first appeared on J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt is “The places I belong are…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Hillary Savoie of http://hillarysavoie.com/

“Is It Hard To Be A Mom?”


The oatmeal threatens to bubble over the edge of the saucepan, the lid clanging loudly as the steamy mixture pushes against it. I stop mid-shmear and turn the flame down to low. I hate cleaning goopy, half-cooked oatmeal mixture off the burner.

I catch the faintest whiff of smoke and turn toward the pancakes just in time to see the edges char to a crisp. All those chocolate chips gone to waste. I scrape the remains into the trash and start again even though we’re already running out of time.

The goal is to get everyone out the door by 8 a.m. I resume shmearing the cream cheese. Four brown lunch bags stand smartly on the counter in front of me, eagerly awaiting their contents. They remind me of Hanukkah candles just before they’re lit — neat and upright, promising magic and surprise. In go four bright orange tangerines. I wonder if anyone will eat them today.

The middle two are already arguing — it’s barely 7:30 a.m. — and I sigh loudly, trying to drown out their not-so-benign insults and petty complaints about who did what to whom and who started it. Their bickering competes with the day’s list of appointments, meetings, errands and carpools I’m going over in my mind. Is the orthodontist today or tomorrow? Must check.

“Mom,” he taps me on the hip. I spin around so quickly that a tiny glob of cream cheese lands in his hair.

“Yes, what? Do you want more cereal? Will you eat this hard-boiled egg? Do you want some milk?”

“Oh no, no thanks. I’m done,” he says as he drops his plate next to the sink. “In the sink. Can you put it in the sink?” I interrupt him again.

There’s a loud clank as he all but throws it into the sink. “Okay. Mom?” I reach down to pick the cream cheese out of his hair. “Is it hard to be a mom?”

His brown eyes are wide and serious. Such a big question for a 7-year-old to wonder about.

Is it hard to be a mom?

It’s not easy to coordinate everyone’s schedules and carpools and favorite foods. It seems like the fridge needs to be filled every other day, and I worry that my 13-year-old doesn’t eat enough. That’s hard.

I can’t seem to get a handle on who needs to be where when, even though I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, and it’s never been more glaringly obvious than it is now that there’s only one of me and four of them, and all of us have different needs in any given day. And I am the one mostly responsible for meeting those needs. That’s hard.

I recently watched my little guy collide headfirst with a teammate at rugby practice, and heard a bone crack when his brother stopped a soccer ball with his arm. That’s hard. Bee stings, ear infections, broken teeth, headaches … whenever my kids are in pain and discomfort, it’s always hard.

My daughter auditioned for a play and didn’t get the part. My oldest son wasn’t selected to play in the football final. A “C” on the science test even though he studied all afternoon. And it’s always hard to explain that sometimes not everyone is invited to the birthday party and this time it was him.

I think of the Hanukkah candles we will light soon. The desperate search so many thousands of years ago for oil to keep the flame burning in the temple. How that oil, that tiny amount of oil they hoped would maybe keep the candles burning for one night, miraculously lasted eight, and so now we light the candles for eight beautiful nights and remember the struggle and the miracle that came from that struggle. Because anything worth doing is hard, and worth struggling for. Like being a mom.

The oatmeal is cooked, the pancakes are delicious, and I manage to remove all the cream cheese from his hair. I cup his small face with my hands and look straight into his eyes. He’s still waiting for an answer.

“Yes, sometimes it’s hard to be a mom,” I say with a smile. I bend down and kiss him on his forehead. “But it’s not hard to be your mom.”

Happy Hanukkah.

This post first appeared on j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.

Number 31


Alcatraz Swim for Sight, October 23 2016 image: http://www.sfgate.com

The helpful young woman wore a headlamp and a big smile as she wrote on the back of my hand in thick black permanent marker. 31. She wrote it on both of my hands. And then she handed me a goody bag containing a cap and ear plugs and waved me on into the early-morning darkness with a cheery and very heartfelt “good luck.” I stumbled over a rock and swallowed. I’d come this far.

I stared down at the numbers inked onto my hands. I doubted my own ability to withstand the next couple hours, so my confidence in the staying power of a few black marks on my skin was tenuous. Even if it was a Sharpie. I have bony hands, and skinny fingers. My grandmother’s hands. The contours of the “3” hugged the veins, which seemed to pulse with nervousness even in the dark dawn. How will they know it’s me when they pull me out, if those inky numbers are gone from my hands? My heart was playing tricks on me. I took a breath of cool morning air, and noticed the sky already light. I turned east, toward the rising sun and looked out across the Bay. There it was.


It didn’t look so far away. Now my eyes were playing tricks on me too. Because it was. Far away. It was a whole two miles far away.

I’d never swum that far before. Suddenly I couldn’t wait for it to be over, one way or another.


The water was cold, some might say freezing although I know it doesn’t get below 55 these days. My toes and arms, the parts of me not swathed in neoprene, tingled and then went numb. Sometimes not feeling is the only way to get through it. I turned my head to breathe and caught a glimpse of the numbers on my hand. Here we go, 31.

The water was rough, and the waves were real. They were big and powerful and nothing like the swells I had been swimming through while training. It took me a few minutes and several mouthfuls of salty Bay water to realize I had to turn more than just my head to take an unobstructed breath. How is it no matter how long and how hard we train, no matter how many protein shakes we drink, no matter how much we think about it and talk about it and reassure ourselves there are no sharks in the Bay this year and the odds of being attacked by one are practically zero, no matter how prepared we think we are, we really aren’t? Because there are forces and wild elements much bigger than we can imagine out there, and when you’re floating somewhere between the world’s most famous prison and an elusive, misty shoreline the only thing to do is go with the current and keep. moving. forward.

Admittedly I wasn’t that prepared. I didn’t train as much as I should have, and I didn’t drink a protein shake after every swim. Often I opted for the pool instead of a session in the Bay, and sometimes I did neither. But, I told myself, I had swum from Alcatraz before and I knew what to expect and if nothing else, I had a wetsuit to keep me buoyant and goggles that didn’t leak and a strong freestyle stroke. And it wasn’t a race. It was a fundraiser for a cause I care deeply about, and it was a test of endurance and a chance to push myself into an uncomfortable place.

Kick, stroke, breathe. Kick, stroke, breathe.

There was nobody in the Bay but us. No early morning sailboats, no ferries full of tourists heading to Sausalito and no fishermen anticipating a good catch. There were no cruise or cargo ships gliding toward the San Francisco shore after a journey across the great Pacific. There was only us, one hundred swimmers in bright green caps with numbers on our hands. Kicking, breathing, pulling ourselves toward the shore. Picture-perfect San Francisco gleamed gently in the still-early light. Our beacon, the Palace of Fine Arts, stately and beautiful and still so far away. The sky was clear, and on my right the Golden Gate Bridge loomed large and distinctly red. International Orange, they call it.

I stopped kicking. Stopped swimming. Let my wetsuit hold me afloat in the middle of the famous Bay. Mermaid Bay, my daughter says. And it was magical.

My hands hit the shallow shore first. I planted my feet in the wet sand and moved forward almost on all fours before I unfurled from the water, hands in the air and every muscle in my face and body exhausted. “Don’t let me do this again,” I gasped to my husband as he wrapped his warm arms around my already shivering body. He smiled.

It took many hot showers and more than a few days for number 31 to fade from my hands. And my unique perspective of the Bay will stay with me forever.