Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Passion for It

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. I always knew that writing would be my vocation, that it would define my way of being in the world. Of course, I also love to read; that goes with the territory. Writing is my passion and I have pursued this activity fiercely. This week I realized that I passed my unwavering singular dedication to my chosen creative outlet on to my son Sudi, who has a similarly fierce passion for creating music. His first independently produced album entitled “You’re There” was released by Brooklyn-based music producer Astro Nautico last week and the following day Sudi was featured in the East Bay Express with a well-written (by Will Butler) article about him and his music.

In the article, Sudi shares that he is constantly writing music everywhere and anywhere. He always has his computer with him and he makes music whenever his busy schedule with a work-study job and as a fulltime CCA student allows, including while waiting for class to begin, while grabbing lunch, while riding the shuttle back and forth between the Oakland campus and the San Francisco campus, and in the evenings in his tiny attic garret that is presently his home.

When I speak to students during my author visits to schools, I tell them to figure out whatever it is that they feel passionate about and to pursue that. If you spend your life doing something you love, whatever that may be, I tell them, then you will be happy and you will have made good use of your life. Sudi and I were both lucky enough to find our passion early in our lives and we have both pursued that passion with tenacity. I have always seen so much of Ron in Sudi. His musical talent and his love for music (and hunger for knowledge about it) certainly come from Ron, but this week I saw that the nature of Sudi’s commitment to creating music is my imprint. We have a similar intensity about our creativity; a similar high level of perseverance. We have a passion for it. Me for my writing. Him for his music.

Click hereto check out Sudi’s new album. You can download it for free. Click here to readthe article about him in the paper. Click here to read a short piece in whichhe shares his thoughts on the development of the music on the album. My understated and laid back youngest, who communicates in three-word emails, is becoming startlingly profound. 

Here is the photo of him that was used in the East Bay Express, taken by photographer Jess Suttner.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

For Dad on Father's Day

When I started my blog a few years back, Dad requested that I respect his privacy and not talk about him on it. I have mentioned him from time to time, but I have consciously left him out of most of my musings. Today he will have to suffer being the subject of my blog entry of the week. After all, he’s 83 years old, and although he’s going strong, I treasure every Father’s Day that I still have him around. If I want to take a minute to appreciate my dad, then I will. I think he can handle it.

One of the greatest gifts that Dad has given to me, his only daughter, is the ability to have a positive attitude. I have received this from him as a result of genetics, of having a get-up-and-go Daddy as a girl growing up, and of watching how he continues to maintain his positive approach as he has aged.

Life is not easy; and it becomes more and more difficult as the years go by and we must assimilate the inevitable challenges, losses, and disappointments that accompany aging. Loved ones pass on. Our bodies don’t work so well anymore. We must reconcile ourselves with the differences between the life we imagined for ourselves in our youth and the life we actually lived and are living. Dad has never been one to dwell on the negative. He wakes up every morning ready for an adventure and eager for a new discovery. He works at not letting things get him down. He looks for the good in other people, delights in the wonders of the natural world, makes opportunities to enjoy the creative efforts of others (in art, writing, song, dance, etc.), uses his extraordinary gift of mathematical ability to contribute to the advancement of his field of inquiry, and generally explores the world. He loves to travel, to meet new people and try new things. He is always hungry to learn. The entire world is his playground. Nothing is beyond the potential realm of his vastly inquisitive mind.

Although I may not be quite as adventurous as my globetrotting father, I share his enthusiasm for life and his desire to make good use of my time here, not to squander my gifts or fail to notice the miracles of everyday. Having a positive attitude has made me resilient. I have been able to cope with worries great and small, obstacles, those losses and disappointments I mentioned already. It is my positive attitude that has made it possible for me to persevere as a writer, recover again and again from rejection, and eventually achieve publication. I try not to have regrets. I try not to hold grudges. I try to let go of anxiety, frustrations, and anger. I try to appreciate the beauty and the wonder. I try to be creative, to find humor, to act from love, and to listen to others when they speak their truest selves.

In some ways, my most fundamental philosophy about life, my way of being in the world, came to me through Dad. I believe that our purpose as human beings is to promote positive energy and that when we engage in positive acts, acts of kindness and compassion, acts of creativity and preservation, we have a positive impact on the universe. Through the gift of a positive attitude, Dad has given me abundant joy. What greater gift from a dad to his daughter? Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Love you.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Opposite Neighbors

The other night I had occasion to share a story about oppositional neighbors that I had once heard and that has stayed with me. It brought this story back to my mind and I want to share it on the blog. (I apologize for not blogging yesterday, we got back late from an out-of-town overnight.) I originally heard this story at a Bar-Mitzvah about 10 years ago. The young man included it in his teaching that he wrote about his Torah portion. The synagogue was a liberal lefty synagogue, so I would guess that most of those present were of a similar left-leaning political persuasion as this young man and his family.

A few years earlier, the boy’s family had moved into a new house. Next door to them was a crotchety old man who had Republican political signs on his front lawn. The boy’s parents referred to him as “the conservative neighbor” and the boy and his family were careful not to engage the old guy or his ailing wife in conversation. They felt it would not go well for them since they had such different politics.

The boy had a younger brother and they were playing with a ball in the back yard soon after moving into their house. The ball went over the fence into the conservative neighbor’s yard. Taking their lives in their hands, the boys timidly knocked on the neighbor’s door and politely asked if they could retrieve the ball. Their neighbor (who had no way of knowing that they were lefty liberals, by-the-way) growled at them about the ball and told them to keep their toys on their side of the fence. He informed them that any balls that wound up in his yard belonged to him and they would not see them again.

After that unfortunate encounter, the boys were as careful as possible about keeping their balls and Frisbees on their side of the fence. But even as careful as they could be, they lost many a ball and Frisbee to the conservative neighbor’s yard over the course of the next two years. During that time the Republican’s wife passed away so he was on his own next door, but just as mean-spirited as ever, glaring at them from his porch. The boys’ parents speculated that he didn’t like children.

Then one evening the boys were playing with a brand new ball and it went over the fence. They told their dad about it and he said, “Enough already. That was an expensive ball and we are going next door to get it back.” The dad and his two sons went to the conservative neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. The dad explained politely why they had come and the neighbor gruffly invited them to follow him through the house to the back yard to retrieve the ball. They had never been inside his house before. As they began to walk through, one of the boys stopped at a picture and asked the old man about it. The old man said it was himself with his wife when they were young. One question led to another and before long the ball was forgotten and the conservative neighbor was showing them old photographs and talking about his younger years and his departed wife, whom he missed very much. He invited them to have a cup of tea, which they accepted, and it was a couple of hours before the boys and their father left with their ball.

In the two years that they had lived next door to one another, these two families had never gotten to know one another. They had both, for their own reasons, assumed they did not like each other, or that at the very least they did not have any common ground on which to meet.

On the morning after their long visit with the conservative neighbor, the boys looked out the window into their back yard and there on the grass were all the balls and Frisbees that had flown over the fence for the past two years. The neighbor had tossed them back into the boys’ yard. After that the boys visited the old man regularly and developed a friendship with him. No politics spoken.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Heroine’s Farewell

One of my heroes (a heroine actually) passed away unexpectedly this past week. Her name is Sharon Shields and she was the director of School-Based Youth Services (SBYS) for the public schools in Camden, New Jersey. I only met her in person once, yet we worked together closely for the past seven years writing grants to support the many programs she managed. She was my number one favorite grants work colleague. Her SBYS provided services and supports to children, youth, and families living under extremely difficult, often traumatic, conditions in perhaps the most distressed community in the country. I have no doubt that during her tenure as the SBYS director, Sharon saved hundreds of lives. The programming that she directed, much of which she created and brought to Camden through the grants that we wrote together, was a lifeline to many, many families. Thousands of children completed school and went on to do something constructive with their lives because of Sharon.

Sharon and I began our grants work together on a grant called the Safe Schools and Healthy Students Initiative. It was a federal grant that would have provided $3 million for violence prevention programming. Sharon and I loved this grant because it was so comprehensive and it recognized the importance of coordinating mental health services, early childhood education, substance abuse prevention and treatment, school site safety, law enforcement, and juvenile justice in order to reduce violence in the school and the community. Sharon wanted this grant desperately. We applied for it every year for five years in a row. I have gotten this grant for other school districts that were not half as organized as Camden or as visionary as Sharon and her colleagues. But for some reason this grant eluded us. Sharon and I joked about it being our nemesis. We never managed to get it for Camden and a couple of years ago it was discontinued. Although we never landed that Safe Schools grant, Sharon and I secured a lot of other grants for the district. All told, the two of us raised close to $15 million in grant funds for the Camden schools during the seven years we worked together. Just the week before last, we submitted a grant for funds to increase the availability of therapeutic services in three family schools.

Sharon received her master’s degree in public health from Yale University and she had a strong background in the mental health services field. She especially knew how to work appropriately and effectively with ethnic minorities and people living in poverty, and she was extraordinarily sensitive to issues related to cultural competence. The programs she designed were inclusive, respectful, and always had built-in components that sought to empower those the programs served. She had a passion for improving the lives of children and youth and it was this mission to which she dedicated her life.

She was in her mid-fifties, only a couple of years younger than I. It feels peculiar to speak about her in the past tense. Because I worked with her via phone, the strongest memory I have of her is how she answered when I called her. I can still hear her voice in my head; and that hilarious cackle-ish laugh of hers. This week, as I have struggled to believe that she is gone, I have come to realize that she has been one of those rare people in my life whom I view as a personal heroine. She was the sort of no-nonsense person who quite simply got it done. She made a huge difference. She did not waste her time here, she did something meaningful and tremendously positive with her life.