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Talk is Golden

More than one reader has asked if I have stopped writing altogether. Understandable, since my last post was two months ago, just as  the quarantine was becoming a way of life instead of a temporary inconvenience. I posted the essay five days before George Floyd was killed, upping the country’s turmoil to a high boil. 

By the end of that week, I participated in a conversation on race between African American and Jewish women. I heard hard stories of prejudice and fear. I heard the palpable anxiety in the voices of mothers who worry that their sons remain unharmed if they are pulled over for a true traffic infraction or simply driving while black.

Their stories were painful to hear but not a revelation. I grew up in Atlanta in the 1960’s. The bigotry I witnessed was both subtle and overt. Some friends’ mothers had a certain sneering chuckle that inevitably followed a recounting of something “the help” did.  Then there were my mom’s stories. A born-and-bred-New Yorker, she recalled learning to navigate the rules of a city that, despite its slogan of being “city too busy to hate” was built upon a scaffolding of bigotry. “Lady, get out my cab,” a black driver once told her, “they’ll kill me.”

Over the course of the next three or four weekly Zoom calls, the meetings expanded into the wonderful sharing that women do so easily.  At one point I shared reflections of my grandfather who had been deeply involved in civil rights work in Birmingham, Alabama.  

Some days later I received an email from Dr. Sabrina Black who, with Sharona Shapiro, a long-term bridge builder in our community, had gathered us all together for that first Zoom call. Dr. Black’s mother heard me mention my grandfather and wanted to talk to me. She was from Bessemer, a town not far from Birmingham. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I called Adell. Were we supposed to “get down to business.” There was talk of writing a book of our experiences but that felt like putting the cart way before the horse. 

Adell told me of her childhood. Her grandfather, a former slave, had acquired land from his owner when he was freed. Whether the land was bought or given, Adell didn’t know. Mr. Miree set aside plots for his seven sons and four daughters to build homes of their own.  “Telling you this now,” Adell reflected, “I think my grandfather, intentionally or not, used the language of the [plantation.] He always said he lived in the ‘big house’ much the way slave owners referred to their own homes.”

I told Adell some of my childhood, how I ended up where I have. As the sole Jewish kid in my classes I was often a target. At school, being a target meant I was occasionally accused of killing Jesus. A classmate once pushed me to the ground so she could feel my horns. At home, being a target meant being raised to understand the primacy Jews put on justice, on welcoming the stranger, on reaching out to those in need. Compassion over cruelty; justice over judgment.  

Adell and I tiptoed around the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing aftermath. I jumped into the breach, “I won’t accept the label ‘privileged.’ It is a dismissive judgment that takes nothing into account of who I am as a human being.” Silence on the other end. “I know I had, and have, advantages because of my skin color. It’s not right. I strive for compassion. For understanding.” Though I didn’t say it at the time, I am on guard against my own judgmental assumptions. Of anyone.

“You had the advantage to be,” Adell said, her voice suffused with gentle honesty. She wasn’t out to club me with the history of others’ brutality. “You had the advantage to be, simply to be.” Her words pierced my heart, putting me right into her shoes and keeping me there. Her words took my breath away. I told her so.

I wish you could hear Adell’s voice as I do.  It is gentle. It is soft. It is imbued with her deep faith in God’s majesty and love. Hers is a voice of wisdom and love and patience.The kind of voice you want to crawl into, listen to again and again. It is a voice that models for you how to listen to another. There’s not much listening going on these days.  There hasn’t been in years.  

There is power and risk in being heard, in bringing one’s story before another to receive. If only we could sit down, all of us in this country. Two by two.  To speak with gentle honesty and listen with compassion. Two by two.  If we don’t find a way to do that, the fury overtaking this country is going to….

 

Are you working to build bridges through conversation? Allow me to support you. I have set aside several sets of Picture a Conversation prompts for just such efforts.  Head over to our Contact page

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In Memoriam: Eleanor Chambliss

Elliot home from college, with Papa and Mimi

Our Mimi died yesterday. She wasn’t our grandmother. Or our aunt. Or the kind of friend who becomes family over years of gatherings. But had she and her husband not come into our lives, we would not be where we are today. In fact we wouldn’t have lived the lives we have lived and continue to live in this solid brick home on a quiet leafy street.

We were to be transferred to Michigan come my ninth month of pregnancy. Well before the due date, Martin and I  headed to Michigan to house hunt. Day after day I felt like Goldilocks. This house was too big; this one was too small. This one was too noisy; that one was too isolated.  Forget about feathering a nest; it looked like we might not even find a nest to feather.  Then our real estate agent remembered a couple in her church were splitting their lot and building a new house next door. Maybe they’d move out before the new house was ready?  She’d ask.  That’s how we met Eleanor and Ed Chambliss.  The deal was sealed. Come June, we would move into their old house and they would rent an apartment until their new home was ready.

Eleanor was the epitome of Southern grace. She was slender and elegant. Her white blonde hair was  done up in a French twist.  There was the softest Charleston lilt in her voice.  Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was often. Eleanor gardened in crisp beige chinos that never showed streak of dirt.

Concretia watching over Elliot as he learns to crawl.

“I planted the beds for you,” she said soon after we moved in.  “I didn’t think you’d be up to gardening this summer.” True to her word, there were gentle spots of color hinting at the beauty to come. I liked her assumption that in a year or so I would be out in the dirt planting, too.  Eleanor left behind a little stone angel that I named Concretia. A master gardener, Eleanor transplanted as much as she could from the lot upon which the new was being built. That’s how there came to bloom two dogwoods, one white and one pink, treasured echoes of my own Georgia childhood.

Ed, Eleanor’s husband, was a giant gentle bear of a man. Ruddy cheeked with a shock of white hair, he was easy with hugs and exuded the kind of resolute optimism born of hardship and hard work. Where Eleanor’s voice was light and lilty, Ed’s was sonorous. HIs eyes were blue as Eleanor’s, the ocean of his reflecting the sky of hers. You couldn’t help but feel safe in Ed’s presence. That’s the kind of man he was. 

We moved in and three weeks later I went into labor. The day of Elliot’s bris, Eleanor stood with me in the doorway of his room and held my hand as the mohel did what mohels are trained to do.”Did you ever think you could love anything so much?” she asked, distracting me, keeping my knees from buckling when my infant son cried out and then quieted.  She had seen straight into my heart. “No,” I said, in awe of the emotions swirling within — relief, pride, gratitude, and above all, yes, the biggest, fiercest love I had ever felt.

Before long, Elliot was toddling around. “Call us Mimi and Papa,” Eleanor said.  Elliot followed Papa whenever he could. One day the two sat down to make a huge Lego pirate ship. Other times they raked leaves.  Come Halloween, Mimi and Papa’s house was our first stop.

They moved on a few years later to build a house that was even bigger than the one next door.  They were in the spring of their retirement years and wanted a home that could accommodate their growing brood of grandchildren. We visited them once or twice in this new lakeside home and then became caught up in blur of our separate lives. They downsized into a condo and then moved back to Charleston, building a house in a small community not far from the ocean.  We visited them a time or two the summers we vacationed in South Carolina.  It was wonderful to see them, wonderful to have them see how our kids were growing up. Our last visit there we could see the subtle signs of the dementia that would eventually commandeer Ed’s life.

When Ed died, their kids convinced Eleanor that it was time to return to Michigan.  I visited her soon after she settled in. Her apartment was elegant though much pared down. She had culled the best of her antiques and beautiful rugs. Ed’s portrait was the first thing you saw when entering her bedroom. She had hung it so that it was the last thing she saw before closing her eyes to sleep. “It was an honor to be his wife,” she said, longing and sorrow threading through her words.

We settled in for a long-overdue visit.  “You were such a bright and special one,” she said, seeing in her mind’s eye a girl of 29 I can’t even recall, if indeed I ever knew her.

“What did you see in me, Eleanor?” I asked  “I’m not fishing for complements.  I just want to know who I was then.” I thought of Robert Burns’ poem and the gift to see ourselves as “ithers” see us. 

“You were sweet,” she said. “So very sweet and loving. You were special.  You still are.”

We visited for a while and then it was time to go.  Mimi and I shared a long hug. I thanked her for all she had given us. I promised to bring Elliot by.  I wanted her to have the joy in seeing the little boy grown up with his beautiful wife and toddler. 

It never happened.  Life got away from us. The calendar pages blurred together once again. Newly retired ourselves, Martin and I  began to travel much as Eleanor and Ed had decades before. I tried to call, but could not reach her.  Trying again months later, I learned Eleanor was no longer residing in the beautiful apartment she had feathered with a lifetime of mementos. Hoping she hadn’t died but figuring she had begun the descent we will all make in one way or another, I stepped back not wanting to intrude into whatever the family was doing to care for their wonderful mother.

Her son emailed yesterday. Going through Eleanor’s old AOL account,  he came across an email I had sent her, inviting her to get together.  “Mom died this morning,” he wrote.

I move through my house and imagine her beside me. I imagine her walking across the green slate tiles of our foyer. I envision her looking down at the garden from the bedroom window each morning. She feels closer to me now, more intimately near, than ever before. I am so very very sad.  Our Mimi blessed our lives with so much. I’d like to imagine that in addition to Concretia, come spring there will be a new angel in our garden watching over us as we get to weeding and planting.

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A Conversation about Becoming a Mother

Some twenty five years ago my mother gave me the painting at the left. She’d seen it in a little restaurant in Atlanta that she frequented. I was in the thick of mothering and striving to get a freelance career off the ground. The painting’s message was spot on.  

The mother’s arm holding the paintbrush is rendered awkwardly but the point of the whole painting is the arm holding the flailing baby. Firm beneath her mother’s forearm, Baby just has to chill. Mama is conversing with her Muse, determined to hold on to a treasured piece of herself all the while hip deep into taking care of Baby.  Maybe the babysitter cancelled that morning; or an ear infection kept Baby out of day care. No matter what, Mama has to paint. My mother’s gift acknowledged my struggles to balance work and motherhood.

On a past trip home, my daughter claimed the painting.  “I want you to give this to me when I become a mother,” she said.  “I want the reminder that I can still create art even if I’m a mom.”  I thought of her comment after reading a recent article in the New York Times profiling young women who do not want, or are not sure they want, children. 

While I thought “not having a partner yet” was a sage reason to wait, and others — wanting leisure time and personal freedom — are legit if short-sighted, the one factor that stopped me cold was that a quarter of the respondents to a survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times didn’t think they’d be good parents. A young woman quoted in the article had such, “high expectations for parents that she wasn’t sure she could meet them….I would have the responsibility to raise this person into a functional and productive citizen, and some days I’m not even responsible.”

Heck that’s what it is to be a parent — living up to your own expectations is an ongoing challenge. You won’t always meet meet them. In fact you often won’t. Some days parenting levels you, knocks you on your ass and makes you cry uncle. Those children you are raising?  Little mirrors reflecting you at your worst and your best. This is what it is to be a parent: to grow; to forgive yourself your human failings; to strive to do better.  And this is what it is to be a parent: the littlest things become daily miracles as you watch your baby discover a shaft of sunlight crossing her line of vision, hear his first laugh and bear witness to their growing discovery of their world, a world in which you are the sun, the moon and the stars. Our children summon from within us strengths we didn’t know we had. Ask any parent who’s survived their kids’ adolescence. Or first trip to the hospital. Or broken heart. Or, God forbid, a life-changing diagnosis.

As for the the functional productive citizen stuff? Drop it.  Celebrate your child’s sense of wonder; protect their joy; follow their lead and guide gently. Focus on instilling patience, empathy, manners, honesty, respect.  That’s the stuff of good citizenship, anyway.

My daughter recently expressed many of the same reservations of the women quoted in the article. I held my counsel. Mostly. The thicket of doubts and uncertainties is hers to maneuver. While it’s difficult to wrap my head around the possibility my daughter may choose not to have a child, the painting is hers no matter what. She will determine what her left arm will hold. 

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Conversation is its Own Brass Ring

I haven’t been patronized in a good long while. Maybe I don’t get out enough. Or maybe my vibe is such that no one dares. But it happened a while back and it brought me up short. I was concluding a phone conversation with a successful East Coast business owner. He generously shared resources and his perspective on ways to market Picture a Conversation™. I told him 

“Well, I hope you make a million dollars,” he said.

“A million dollars would be nice,” I replied, “but what I really want is to change some lives.”

After a moment of silence he chuckled and replied, “Change some lives? How…how sweet.” Were this not a phone conversation, I imagine he might have reached out to pat my head.

Admittedly, I’m reading snark into a comment where none was intended, but his words rankled just the same.  Sure I’d like that brass ring to fulfill my want list of million-dollar fantasies, and yes, I continue to work, host conversation workshops, brainstorm and network. Every week I read more articles and book reviews whose message attests to what is happening to society as face-to-face conversations continue to dwindle. What I’ve created, what I’m doing, matters. No brag, just fact. And chutzpadik hope, too.

The truth is I’m doing this because I felt compelled to create something of value and once created, it merited exposure. We all need to text less and talk more. I trust in the power of Picture a Conversation.  Period. People tell me of the wonderful experiences they’ve had using these conversation prompts. A counselor recently wrote that he uses them with a group of couples he meets with regularly. In his latest note he shared that the group spent their entire evening — two and a half hours! — discussing the three questions on just one card! That’s a brass ring right there.

ABWA members got into the conversation one-two-three.

Another brass ring is watching  people beginning a conversation during one of my workshops.  There is this moment of uncertainty and then the room explodes with the sounds and gestures of conversation — laughter, lulls, more talking, head-nods of agreement, hands waving in expression and emphasis. Every workshop validates how deeply people enjoy talking with one another and how deeply they need it.  

A partner and I have just begun to offer Convo-Motion workshops that weave together conversations and creative movement. The first one was a revelation to us all. More are planned.

It’s hard putting myself out there, laying myself bare to throwaway comments that mean little but sting much. Yes, a million dollars would be great. But I haven’t reached sixty plus without recognizing that I’m already blessed with life’s true riches — health, the love of my husband and children, a delightful daughter-in-law and our first grandchild, a wide and deep circle of friends, roof, clothes, heat, food. (All of you Jews out there, are you now doing the old country ppp ppp ppp thing to chase away the Evil Eye? Me, too.) If the dollars come, great. Better, much better, will be thousands of people continuing to use our cards to spark meaningful conversations of their own and drawing closer with one another in the process. Every time that happens, it is very sweet indeed. 

So here are some questions to start conversations with friends, loved ones, co-workers:
• What’s your own brass ring?                                                                                                                               • What about this obsession that money, big money, is synonymous with success?                                  • How do you handle do you do with patronizers?

And here’s your call to action. Purchase a set of Picture a Conversation.  With Christmas and Chanukah coming up, you’ll be giving what no one else will — real face time, offline. Intrigued by the idea of our Convo-Motion workshop? Email me — debra a pictureaconversation dot com — and schedule one. Thank you.

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Stopping by a Tree on a Summer Evening


I witnessed a miracle this evening. Some wouldn’t think miracle, merely Nature doing her thing. But I stood spellbound and in awe for nearly 40 minutes as a cicada birthed itself — slowly, slowly, ever so slowly unfolding into life, enacting the silent conversation coded into its DNA.

Walking home from yoga the pale shade of green lichen covering a tree trunk called to me. If you were a kid and had rendered this tree trunk in green, especially this light grey-green celadon shade, the teacher would likely have told you, No, sweetheart, tree trunks are brown. Or maybe, if you got lucky and had a kind teacher, she’d praise you for your Fauvist leanings.

Then I saw the cicada, 2/3 of the way out of its papery brown chrysalis, head down as if emerging from a birth canal. Its eyes were obsidian black. Its legs were folded tightly over its abdomen. Its wings were mere apostrophes tipped in bright green and held tight against its body. Could it see me? Should I leave it be? Not watch this intimate act of life coming into being? Not stand there while this oh so common yet nevertheless sacred act played out before me? I couldn’t tear myself away.

It hung there for a good ten minutes and then sproing! the lowest pair of legs began trembling, extending outward into the evening air. Bent at an odd angle, they reminded me of the crank handle Half-Pint would turn to raise and lower the water bucket on Little House on the Prairie. Next to unfold were the remaining two pairs of legs. After another rest, the cicada leaned forward, grasped the now-papery chrysalis with its front legs.The remaining four legs pushed against the husk until it flipped its bottom out and was suddenly upright. Entirely separated from its crinkly home, it clung with all six legs hanging for what seemed like an eternity.

 

Look closely for the orange spots on its forehead and the secondary wings appearing

During that eternity, its wings began to unfold — transparent, veined like one of Chartre’s stained glass windows. A few minutes later a smaller second pair of wings began to delineate themselves beneath the primary pair. A Batman-shaped pattern emerged on the cicada’s back and next, a constellation of orange dots appeared on its forehead. Fully formed the cicada hung there. And hung there. And hung there.

 

 

I grew impatient. Hurry up! Part of me itched to tease it free with a twig. I didn’t. Promise. My mind began wandering. Anthropomorphizing. How often do we hold onto things that we no longer need? It takes so much strength to let go of old supports! So much gumption to separate and fly free. The cicada, perfectly upright now, wings no longer apostrophes but complete and ready to beat, nevertheless clung to its see-through shell.

See the Batman tattoo? The secondary wings are now fully visible

How often do we urge our children forward before they are ready? Or steep in impatience as they march in synch with their own inner metronome? I left before the cicada made its final separation. No coincidences, I thought as I headed home. Today is my daughter’s thirtieth birthday. As you’d imagine, all day memories of her birth flitted through my mind — the early twitches and twinges that coalesced throughout the day into stronger and stronger contractions; the long evening at home as waves of labor swelled and crashed within me; then the ride to the hospital where, after ninety endless minutes she was ours to hold, ours to count finger and toes, ours to stare into her huge black watchful eyes. Her hands were purple and I feared something was awry. Her little lungs, like tiny bellows, hadn’t yet inflated more than a time or two. Soon her hands pinked up.

Today, those hands create beautiful art. Her feet take her on her own path in her own time. Her eyes are still obsidian dark. They see so much, too much I sometimes think because her heart is so big and it breaks. Yes, time and again she pushed against me to free herself. And yes, there were times we both clung too long. I won’t take this metaphor any farther. I am not a husk; not even close. I watch her from afar now. Flying free she soars. Her wings are veined with determination. And I, I witness miracles.

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Once and Future Conversations

Picture a Conversation ElephantsOur daughter-in-law jokes that our newborn granddaughter is part baby elephant. At four weeks, Olivia has a full repertoire of snorts and snuffles, back of the throat raspings and full-throated cries that trumpet, “Somebody better feed me and change me, NOW!”  Olivia and her devoted mom are embarking upon a mother-daughter conversation that will last their entire lives.

As for me, one of her devoted grandmothers, I look forward our own conversations.  I adored that brief window of my kids’ verbal development as they acquired language but not the filters that kept their words, and thus their thoughts, hidden. I savored their funny phrasings and crystalline insights, all the more stunning for coming from such wee beings.

Look, Mommee! Olivia’s father said to me some three decades ago.  Bubbles!  IMG_1769He was pointing to a set of iridescent crystal goblets we’d received as a wedding gift. What poetry to see the world through my son’s eyes. There was the time he pulled me to the window to point out the falling snow.  “Look, Mommee.  Doesn’t the snow make you think of God?” “Oh yes, little one. Yes, indeed.”  I thought then.

 

IMG_1771What kinds of conversations will Olivia and I share?  Will we read about Noah’s ark  and imagine together how God might have dreamt up the giraffe and the peacock? Whence came the idea for kangaroos and starfish? Or why sunflowers have dozens of petals and tulips so few? What will be her talk on the changing leaves as fall overtakes summer? Or what it feels like to  jump in a pile of leaves or build her first snowman? As time passes, our conversations may well turn to deeper issues — squabbles with friends,  frustration with her parents’ sage rules and boundaries, broken hearts and promises.

But until then, I savor Olivia’s cries and whimpers, the outsized snuffles coming from one so new.  The conversations will be here before I know it.

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A “Sprained” Conversation

What a blessing to have use of my thumb!

What a blessing to have use of my thumb!

I fell recently and my wrist, while not broken, was still hurting. The hand surgeon confirmed that nothing was fractured and sent me to the local medical supply place for a brace.  It was a long wait in a place devoted to the old-age infirmities that can befall us — adult diapers, walkers, splints, crutches and more. I signed in and counted the names above mine. It was going to be a long wait.

I picked up a magazine and took a seat next to a woman who was also waiting to be seen. Minutes passed.  Long minutes.  Then a quarter of an hour that turned into a half hour. The woman began talking to herself not so sotto voce,  “I’ve been waiting over an hour to be seen. I KNOW I didn’t have an appointment. But I didn’t KNOW I was going to break my wrist today.” Then her mutterings escalating to curses. I tried to voice commiseration that I hoped would ease the tension. Truth be told, she was just saying what the rest of us were thinking; we just had better filters in place. But I grew uneasy. Would she go from words physical venting?  Did she have a gun? Had she broken her dominant hand?  Could she shoot left-handed?

The receptionist said they were moving as quickly as they could.  Things quieted down, and then I heard crying.  The woman’s body language projected utter defeat —  shoulders slumped, head in her hands, completely withdrawn. Through her cries she whimpered that she was in pain. That it was her twins’ birthday and she needed to get home to celebrate, but how could she make them a cake with a broken hand?  In that moment, the whole drama shifted from a one-person play to a scene in which we all had a part — we were all in some degree of pain; we all had somewhere else to be; we were all wondering how we would handle the physical tasks that, pre-injury, we did on autopilot.  Again, this woman was projecting what all of us were confronting within.  And for this poor woman it was just too much. She was overwhelmed, and simply could no longer cope. Or maybe she was coping better than the rest of us by expressing exactly what she was feeling and facing (minus the cursing, mind you.)

So I started a conversation.  Tell me about your kids.  How old are they? How did you hurt yourself? Turns out her kids were 17, a boy and a girl.  Like me, she had taken a spill in a moment of distraction. She confessed to being an impatient person.  I said the same and joked that the universe was probably testing me by giving me a situation requiring patience.  Trying not to sound too preachy I gently suggested that maybe this was an opportunity for us both to try and go with the flow.  And because I write an advice column, I couldn’t help but add that at 17, her kids could wait a bit. Her physical well-being had to take priority so that she could be there for them later.   A minute or two passed; it was finally her turn. I didn’t see her again.

We are so wrapped up in our own worlds, our own hurts, our own lives. Random conversations are beautiful reminders that we are not as separate as we think and that sometimes, simply talking to one another helps to mend what is broken, yet unseen.

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