Modern Family Easter

I hate Easter.  Wait.  Before you judge, it’s not the message I hate, but my total epic parenting fail each year as I attempt to create a meaningful experience for my non-church-going family and instead end up disappointed with myself and angry at all of them.   This year was the most ridiculous yet.   When my teenage son accused me of channeling my inner-Claire and labeled it the “Modern Family Easter” I had to admit he was right.

Easter was my favorite holiday when I was a kid.   The few years dad and I were on our own were lean.  A private school music teacher didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we were happy and I didn’t really know how poor we were.  My clothes and our furniture came mostly from hand-me-downs and the Encore Shoppe on Route 1 in Kennett Square.  I loved combing the thrift store to find treasures for less than a dollar, and putting together funky outfits. It was the ’70’s, so thrift store chic wasn’t so far off the mark.

But Easter was different.  Every Easter I got to pick out a brand new outfit.  Dad would take me to Sears or J.C. Penny’s and I could pick out a dress and shoes.  The night before Easter felt like Christmas Eve.  I couldn’t sleep in anticipation.  Easter morning I awoke to a lovely Easter basket (much bigger once my dad married my wonderful stepmother).  My stepmother headed to Church, but dad and I went to our Quaker Meeting.  After the close of meeting, the children handed out pansy plants to each member to take home and plant in the garden, heralding the approach of spring.  Fourth grade members of the First Day School  received their very own monogrammed bible, and 7th graders got a copy of Faith & Practice.  Dad would often play a few songs on the piano then the whole meeting would retire out to the yard to watch the Easter egg hunt and sip lemonade.  I loved hunting for eggs among the gravestones and later cut my teeth in leadership roles by organizing the hunt for the younger kids myself.  After meeting (and a few years later) we went to Easter lunch at Grandma Skip’s place.  She would make a feast and use the fancy china.  Our Easter had the perfect combination of religious piety, community, childhood indulgence, family, beautiful food and seasonal reverence.  It was perfect.

Fast forward a few decades and a few countries and our family hasn’t been able to settle into a Sunday church routine despite more efforts than I can count.  In lieu of church we usually resort to hiking, the farmer’s market, brunch, or a solitary run for me while the others sleep in.  I have resigned myself to the state, but on Easter and Christmas, I really suffer the lack of tradition and religious community.

Last week I saw a sign at the school that advertised a beachside sunrise Easter service at 6:30 am.  I reasoned that we could get up and out, join a casual outdoor service and check the box on worship before we were really awake – thereby appeasing my restless yearnings – then get on with the day.  I prepped everyone that this was the plan the night before and they grumbled, but didn’t refuse.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 Easter morning, all but the youngest protested.  My husband, already begrudgingly up and showered, didn’t appreciate my last minute attempted acquiescence and I think I might have said something about not being his mother (apologies to his mother!) when he asked if he had a choice about going.  The teenager was the hardest to rouse, but I was on a mission.  Un-showered and with headphones firmly ensconced in both ears, he shuffled to the car with a “what the hell” thrown in for good measure.

I parked at the wrong end of the beach, so we took off our shoes and skirted the surf to the other side.  Arriving after the service had begun we found about two dozen people happily singing along to the guitar as the children ran around.  All the park benches were accounted for, so we sat on the ground.  The nice minister was enthusiastic and happy, declaring over and over, with a sportsman-like whoop, that “Jesus has risen!  Yea!”  “Woo-hoo!”  Communion emerged from a screw cap roadie and a ziploc baggie and was awkwardly decanted into more fitting vessels.  My youngest, accustomed to receiving communion in other churches, was bummed when he was passed over in lieu of a blessing and asked loudly if he and I could split the host I was offered.  I don’t think the teen took the ipod out of his ear the whole time as he sat propped against the beachside trash can.  The minister was afraid to approach him for a blessing and so air blessed him from three feet away.

As the group sang an impossibly falsetto contemporary Christian song we didn’t know, an elderly Speedo-clad Chinese man wandered through the group, stretching his arms and clapping to the tune.  Surprisingly he didn’t really look out of place in that setting, but picturing my husband showing up to that service in a similar outfit made me chuckle.  Just as the service ended and the minister offered his carton of OJ and paper cups to stick around and get to know everyone, a completely naked female swimmer emerged from the sea and strode up the beach, entirely unburdened by her public nakedness.  Watching the churchgoing men try to avert their eyes over OJ was hilarious.

We headed home.  I took the younger two for brunch and a swim while my husband and teenager went back to bed.  Later, my son’s lingering cold wasn’t improving, so we headed to the hospital for a check and everyone else puttered for the rest of the afternoon.

The day would have been a total write-off were it not for a dear friend who knows how to celebrate holidays and every day with style, kindness and fun.  She invited us for Easter dinner and it was as perfect as could be.  An egg hunt for the kids, beautiful flowers, hand-blown eggs painted with chalkboard paint for our place cards at the table, beautiful food, drinks, friends and individual bunny cakes for dessert.  We told the story of our morning, and somehow telling it made me laugh and let it go.  Maybe some year I’ll be able to make my kids feel as excited about Easter as I was when I was a child. Until then, I will feel grateful for the blessings of friends who can do what I cannot and try not to take it all too seriously.

Reflecting later, I realized that my son’s Modern Family moniker for our day really was astute, as even though Claire and Phil and their family can be ridiculous, neurotic, silly and selfish, the one message that rings true in each episode is that family comes first, no matter what happens.

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Welcome to the World

My dad died six years ago today on his 83rd birthday.  Teacher Cal, Mister B., Slim the Milkman, Cowboy Joe, Dad… he was loved by so many for his gentle presence, his musical talent and his kindness.  On the day I was born he wrote me a letter.  Thankfully I still have a copy of the letter in his distinctive block letter handwriting.  His wisdom about the world, heartbreak and all, is too good to keep to myself.  So, in tribute to him, today, I am sharing his letter with you:

“Welcome, Gweneth, Welcome to the World.

You picked a fantastic day to get born on.  It was one of those incredible days in early fall.  The air was as taut as a harp string and the sunny morning color was a sensual ache.  As the day aged, great packed rollers of chilly cloud tumbled in from the Northwest.  Your mother and I didn’t see much of it, though, for the light had almost gone when Mother Nature and Doctor Kroll finally changed you from a promise to a presence.  I won’t forget that moment when you were wrapped in blankets and canvas and handed to me, still streaked with blood and hollering.  You soon quit bawling and blinked your eyes open to look at life and try to find out what it was all about.

I wonder now if there aren’t a lot of times ahead when you will be just as bewildered about life as you were when you first peered out, unable to focus on the swirling whites and greens of the delivery room.  This life is confusing, Gwen; it’s full of paradox and inconsistency.  It’s beautiful and warm and exciting and at the same time, brutal, harsh and full of pain.

The pain.  That’s what hangs people up.  We can’t accept hurt as a natural part of life.  Your body will be bruised and cut many times but it’s the injuries to the spirit that you’ll find are the hardest.  People you love and trust can desert you and laugh at your loneliness.  Kids will insult you; cut you up just for kicks, and sooner or later you’ll even face the anonymous, smothering hurt of the system:  Institutions, Procedures and Regulations.

Yet, oddly enough, I don’t want to shield you from these hurts because resisting and hardening to the hurts of life means you must also harden to the joy.  Insensitivity stifles what is meaningful as effectively as it deadens pain.

Look a the person who hurts you.  What’s his hang-up?  Does he cringe behind the barricade of the clique?  Drugs?  Alcohol? The Establishment?  Be compassionate.  The more he works to turn off pain, the harder he must work to turn on life.  So many of us are uptight, Gwen, because we’ve deadened parts of ourselves out of fear of pain.  Look at us, Gwen; try to understand and in your frustration at the hurt we must cause you, strengthen your courage so you need not lose your own vulnerability.  With all its bitterness and hazard, the art of living and loving offers enough to keep you turned on and high forever.

So, welcome, baby.

Welcome to life.

Welcome to the World

Fiction Story: Opalescent

An NPR ‘Three Minute Fiction’ prompt, “a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning” inspired me to write a story… 

On the eve of her departure from Nairobi, Maeve sat on the nubby sofa as Theo awkwardly fished in his pocket and pulled out a small box.  Her stomach lurched in anticipation of the uncomfortable moment ahead.  Was he really about to propose after only six months of what she thought of as a fleeting romance?  He was beautiful, and their month-long safari had been a glimpse of an enviable life of adventure and passion, but marriage?   No, she wasn’t ready for that. Opening the box, Maeve was relieved to see a pair of lovely, gold-rimmed, opal stud earrings.  Theo held tightly to the box, removing one earring and looking her directly in the eye.

“Maeve,” he said longingly,  “I love you.  I know you feel the need to return to America now, but I want you to come back to me and to your home in Africa.  I bought these earrings for you, but you can’t have them yet.  For now I am going to keep one, and you take the other.  Come back and reunite the pair when you’re ready.  I will wait for you.”

With that, Theo kissed her gently and returned the box with the lone earring to his pocket.

At the airport the next morning, Maeve clutched the earring in her fist.  The post made a dent in her palm that hurt almost as much as the lump in her throat as she bid farewell to Theo and the life she had built in Kenya.   But there were weddings to attend, a job offer in LA and anyway, she was only 22 years old.  She couldn’t possibly just live in Africa, could she?

Maeve spent the summer at her family home in Delaware.  How strange it was to be back in the same house she grew up in after all she had experienced in war zones in Africa.  At the end of the summer, Maeve boarded a plane for Los Angeles with two suitcases. Single, idealistic and slightly pudgy, Maeve found Los Angeles to be harder than she expected and she longed for her adventurous and earnest life in Africa.  She almost called Theo.

Then, one evening out with her new friend Tessa at a beachside bar filled with cute guys in backward baseball caps, Maeve met Matt.  A world traveler as a child, Matt stood out from the crowd because he knew that Africa wasn’t a country and had even been to Nairobi. Maeve and Matt started dating and eventually married and built a life together.  The more years went by, the further Africa slipped from Maeve’s memory.

They were living in Prague when Maeve got the call that her father had died.  Maeve quickly gathered the children and returned to her family home in Delaware.  Maeve’s stepmother had loved the home she shared with Maeve’s father, but the memories of his illness weighed heavy on her and she decided to sell the house. 

Maeve’s room had been kept a shrine to her childhood, so as she sorted and discarded decades of various sundry mementos, Maeve reached in the bowels of her closet and uncovered a damp canvas tote.  Shoving her hand to the bottom, her finger was pricked by a pin.   She recoiled her hand and dumped the tote.  There on the carpet the little opal earring glinted in the sunshine for the first time in 15 years.  Maeve picked it up and, turning it over in her palm, she squeezed hard.  The pain of the stud in her flesh made her flinch, but not with regret, only gratitude for the love she had felt at the time that had prepared her for the life she now lived.   She knew that she had no intention of returning the earring to Theo, but she did wonder if he still held its mate?

The Snail

This morning I put the kids on the bus and headed out for a run along the South China Sea. Listening to Krista Tippett interview Paul Elie about Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy on her radio show On Being, I settled into an easy pace and listened. Of these 20th century writers Elie said, “They weren’t content to settle in that place and say, ‘This is my lot,’ or ‘This is the lot of our time.’ Their hunger for something more, for something deeper was so strong that they made that unbelief or disbelief a starting point and then a continual testing ground for their religious convictions.”

As I listened to the interview, I ran along Stanley Main Beach, through town and up over Chung Hom Kok Road. Turning into Ma Hang Park on my return I noticed a woman standing in the middle of the path ahead of me. Something held her attention, and I wondered what it was.  Getting closer, I saw that the woman was a friend of mine and the object of her attention was a large garden slug with a shell on its back that had made its way all the way to the end of a long, dangling palm. The palm hung from a towering tree, but stopped short a good three feet above the concrete path. We stopped and stared wondering where the snail would go from there. It seemed to be in the most impossible predicament. Could a snail that size turn around? Could it back up? Would it linger until it ran out of food, water and strength then release and fall to the path below, surely cracking its shell? Had the snail unwittingly crept to a certain death, or was there a way out that we couldn’t see?

My friend was out for a walk. Her in-laws are visiting and, it being Monday morning, she subtly suggested that her walk was precipitated by a need for a little alone time after a weekend of togetherness. I bid her a cheerful farewell and started again on my run, but then stopped and called out to her.

“Monique! I love that you stopped to look at that snail. Keep that in mind today and remember, it doesn’t get worse than that!”

We both smiled and went our separate ways. As I turned back to my podcast, Paul Elie was quoting Walker Percy. “The pilgrim’s search is outside oneself. The Guru searches within.” I thought this delightfully fitting apropos the poor snail’s predicament and my friend’s momentary escape. Were any of us this morning content with “this is my lot” or did we hunger for more? Were the snail’s survival resources to be found within or outside itself?

I think I will return this afternoon to see if the snail remains on the palm or if the snail’s remains mark the pavement below. If it’s still hanging on, I may just give it a lift to lower ground. Perhaps, as I think about it now, I should have done that in the first place. But then how can it be that a snail would need me to save it?

Yoga Slu*!

I wrote this a few years ago and sent it to my local paper in Telluride.  They published it under the title “Yoga and Commitment,” saving me from forever being linked to the word slut on the internet.  It made me think about the value of a good editor and the danger of blogging without one, but I still prefer the original...


I wish I could remember my very first time. On my back, eyes closed, exhausted but energized from all that activity, peaceful, breathing deeply.   Savasana. Namaste!

I’m a yoga girl, but it hasn’t always been this way. I rack my brain trying to remember the first time I did it, but I really can’t recall. Did I take a class in college, bum a guest pass in DC from a friend and try it out, or salute the sun as it sank into the Indian Ocean on my R&R in Malindi? Most likely it coincided with my move to Los Angeles. Being twenty-three and single, idealistic, just off the boat from Africa and friendless in LA is prime fodder for yoga exploration, but even then I can’t remember a special first time.

Like childhood, there are hazy half memories of down dogs and cobras, but nothing significant until after I got married and my new husband and I launched a Saturday morning routine of running from our rental in Manhattan Beach down to Hermosa for a class under flowing curtains of silk in a small, independent studio by the beach. We quickly moved from Manhattan Beach to Santa Monica where the choices for yoga were much greater and I flirted with many different styles, but still I didn’t commit to one. Well, that is, until I got pregnant. Amazing how that one little line on the stick can make a girl take a deep breath and become faithful. Yet as quickly as I committed, nine months later I was back playing the field.

You see, I have a confession to make. As much as I love yoga, and I do, I’m a yoga slut. I’ll do any kind, anywhere and with any instructor. I have no ego and no real standards when it comes to a yoga class. Ashtanga, anusara, yoga for athletes, hatha, yogafit, core fusion, prenatal, meditative, restorative, fusion, hot, iyengar, yogalates, acro, beginner or advanced…I’ve done them all. From celebrity yogi classes with my mat so close to the next woman’s that my nose ends up uncomfortably close to parts of her I really don’t want to be near, to free community classes with one or two other random people, I’m equally happy, and I actually pride myself on not caring – and often not knowing — what kind it is.

I love setting up my mat in a new studio and sitting there waiting to see who walks through the door. I’ve had some laugh-out-loud funny experiences in yoga classes that have reduced me to stifled giggles. There was the German instructor in a banana hammock on Main Street in Santa Monica who spent the whole class demonstrating with us standing around him rather than practicing ourselves. Another time a girlfriend visiting from DC wanted to do yoga so I took her to my studio of choice at the time. The instructor insisted, over and over, that we show her our “star fingers” which nearly had us kicked out of class for laughing every time she said it. Years later, that same girlfriend and I took a prenatal class together in DC. The next day I got on the plane back to LA and she went into premature labor. Not a laughing matter, but memorable still. I could go on and on.

When I was training for the NY Marathon I loved the yoga classes in Venice where the tagline of the place was “No chanting. No granola. No sanskrit.” The lesbian corporate lawyer turned yogi would put on the greatest KCRW-like music in her brick lined warehouse space and we’d do her signature workout designed for athletes. I lived a block from the famous Maha yoga studio at the time, but rather than commit to an hour and a half class – I can get fidgety after an hour – I would drive 20 minutes each way to Venice to take the hour class there.

For anyone who found herself knocked up on the Westside of LA at the turn of the century, Rocky’s yogababy was the place to be. We’d trek to Marina del Rey, park on the street, open the gate and walk along a little path down the side of her house to the quiet little studio she built in the back. The walls were lined with mirrors and straps, there was always a basket of toys and a few big yoga balls rolling around for the mommy-and-me classes, and the whole place had a strong odor of cat urine, but still, it was comforting for all of us and we grew together. Our husbands will tell you about the pain of gripping an ice cube for one minute in each palm. This was Rocky’s way of trying to demonstrate to them the intensity and duration of a contraction. Little did any of us know at the time that it was not a good comparison. Many of us returned with our little babies a few months later. Rocky would sit on a yoga ball, bouncing sometimes three of our little offspring at a time as we began to explore and find our bodies again after the trauma of giving birth.

Yoga has also been there to pick up the pieces in the tough times too. When my dad was dying in Pennsylvania and I was living in London with my three kids, my husband already living in our next home, Hong Kong, I found my way to a yoga class at a studio in Primrose Hill that unknowingly but very clearly guided my grieving process. The instructor (a dead ringer for Hollywood’s Jesus)  would offer a few words before our meditations and they always resonated and kept me going until the class the next week. This was as close to God as I got during those painful months.

So yoga has been my vehicle of choice for navigating life’s milestones over the last decade, more so than church or any other institutional support mechanism. I have the utmost respect for the practice and philosophy of yoga and I rely on it heavily, but I humbly admit that I really know nothing about it.

In fact, there’s only one thing related to yoga that makes the hair on the back of my neck bristle, and that is yoga snobbery by fellow lycra-clad, latte-fisted, buff, skinny, white girls. To hear these women hold court about their loyalty to a particular form of yoga sends my eyes rolling to the sky. I had coffee with a girlfriend who was telling me about her Indian in-laws who do yoga. She said they feed a string up one nostril and out the other and could do the same with water. They would walk on fire and sit for hours in a meditative trance as part of their practice. Even the perkiest of the yoga set in Santa Monica, I can assure you, is not feeding string through her nose.

And that’s my point. The commercialization of yoga has benefited millions of us around the world who now have access to elements of a rich tradition that offers a holistic combination of spirituality and exercise – the holy grail for us 40 somethings – to guide us through the days when our knees and hips start to go and our diagnoses get more serious and frequent. But watching us all pretend to actually “know” yoga must be hilarious, or maddening, for those who really do. True yoga requires an all-consuming, life-long committed relationship, and this floozy is just not there yet.