Sunday, December 26, 2021

Driving Desmond Tutu

All the lovely tributes about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died today at the age of 90, are missing one key point: Desmond Tutu glowed.

A joyful activist for equality and justice, Archbishop Tutu radiated; he filled the space around him with an expansive, inclusive, golden aura of light and love and peace and kindness.

I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.

I was captured by the glow when Archbishop Tutu and his gracious wife Leah visited Kansas City in 1996. As one of their hosts during a visit to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I had the privilege of driving them around town. They eschewed a limo or police escort; after years of leading protests against apartheid in South Africa, the Archbishop reportedly preferred to avoid police cars.

I was embarrassed to open the doors to my small, old car. I shouldn't have worried. They were clearly delighted to get in the backseat together and relax a bit, out of the spotlight.

As l drove this loving couple to the airport, we chatted like old friends. I asked him about the risks he faced daily, the dangers he put himself in as he fought for change. I don’t remember his response (I believe it was essentially a shrug and a, “One does what one can,” kind of answer), but I do remember Leah, resplendent in colorful South African garb, looking directly in my rearview mirror and rolling her eyes. 

I could have asked dozens of questions as I drove, but Archbishop Tutu had other ideas. He wanted to ask the questions; he wanted to use our limited time together to learn about me and my life.

“You are a young woman with a career and a family,” he said. “How do you manage? How do you balance all the demands?”

He asked. He listened. This gentle, strong, world-changing leader wanted to know about me.

I was honored by his interest; he was grateful for my time. Several days after their visit to Kansas City, I received a handwritten postcard from the Archbishop, thanking me for all I had done to “look after” him and his wife and letting me know they enjoyed themselves “hugely.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was all of the things the tributes note — he was ebullient and inspirational. He was heroic, powerful, and courageous. He was a sage and a leader. 

He was a man. A son, a husband, a father, a friend. And he glowed. 

In the words of my religious tradition, may his memory be a blessing. May his light always shine.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Tell a Story Day

Not sure what story you'd like to tell? 
No worries -- it will come to you. 
For now, be willing to listen. Really listen. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

100% Lillian: Lullabies and Love

Look Up: A Centennial Celebration wraps up on this very special Friday -- 100 years ago today, Sophie and Issie Eisen welcomed baby Lillian into the world. 

Lillian loved music her entire life, and learned how to play the piano as a child. It was a rare day that didn't find Mom singing a song, or humming along as someone else sang. When Village Shalom, her retirement community, brought in entertainers to perform for the residents, Mom was always in the front row, singing along and clapping enthusiastically. 

Matter of fact, one of her few complaints at Village Shalom was that not enough of the "old people" showed up for these weekly performances. (She also felt that those who did show up weren't nearly appreciative enough. Mom was a big believer in applauding the talents of those around her.) 

Mom's love of music -- and her appreciation of talent -- drew young people to her. They'd come to Village Shalom as part of a volunteer group or with a simple desire to connect, and be captured by the magic that was Mom. 

A delightful young woman named Sarah visited Mom regularly for years; Mom treasured a CD of Sarah singing some of their favorite songs. Paris Naster -- like Sarah, a musical theatre star -- met Mom back in 2017 and kindly sent an email, telling me how much she enjoyed their encounters:  

"We connected almost immediately and began singing," Paris said. "I have gone to see her about three times since and each time is wonderful. She shares with me her pride in being a Jew, her adoration of her family, and wonderful stories that bring joy to both of us ...

"I brought my Mom to meet her the other day and she said, 'We could be famous, you and me. We'd make a great team and an even better album!'"

Mom and Paris. They do make a great team.
If the video below of them singing doesn't work,
please forgive my technical 
incompetence and click here

Along with music, Mom loved children. I like to think that I top the list, followed by Harry and Eva or -- more likely -- Kate and Mary. (Ha! My blog, sibs. Write your own stories.) Put her love for music and children together and what do you have? Lullabies, of course! Mom wrote the music and lyrics for four beautiful lullabies -- one each for Harry, me, and Eva, and then the Choo Choo Song for all three of us. 

Over the years, Mom sang Hello Sandman; See Me, God; It's Nighty-Night Time; and the Choo Choo Song to us, our kids, and dozens of other lucky children. And the lyrical loveliness didn't stop with Mom: My sister, who recently retired from the MU Child Development Lab, rocked countless more babies to sleep to the tune of these songs.

The lullabies are part of Mom's legacy of love, so it's only fitting that they are Mom's centennial birthday gift to you. If you would like the sheet music to all four lullabies, leave your email address in the comments here, or send an email directly to me. It will be my great pleasure to send you a PDF of The Lillian Sokoloff Songbook

Because, lord knows, we can all use a little more Lillian in our lives. 

Big thanks to my friend Linda Sweenie
for translating the lullabies into sheet music! 

Oh! When you get the music and lyrics, remember that the classic Choo Choo Song is adaptable. The original version says, "Three sleepy children, just got on the train ..." because there were three of us. Make it work for your family. 

And, this is VERY IMPORTANT: You have to sing the Choo Choo Song last, right as your little one is drifting off. And you absolutely need to add the "Whoo! Whoo!" train whistle sound at the end. Lillian is listening for it. 


Thursday, April 22, 2021

100% Lillian: One to Grow On

So, by now you know that tomorrow -- April 23, 2021 -- marks the 100th anniversary of Mom's birth. We've been 100% Lillian all week on the blog! Today, Look Up: A Centennial Celebration continues, but we're taking a teeny, tiny detour to celebrate another birthday girl. 


It was 1960. I was 5.
I'll let you do the math. 

As you might expect, Mom made every birthday special. More than that -- she made every "month day" special. That's right. On the 22nd of every month, Mom happily greeted me with an enthusiastic Happy Month Day! the minute I got out of bed. 

Growing up with a mom who makes you feel like a rock star for existing is absolutely as lovely as you might think.*

But, I digress. Let's get back to birthdays. 

On one birthday long ago, Mom saved me from a candle disaster. I don't remember which birthday it was, but I was young and had long hair. In my typical near-sighted, asthmatic way, I leaned over really close to blow out the candles -- and my hair went into the flames. There was a collective gasp -- and there was Mom. At my side in a split second, pulling me and my ponytail back to safety. 

Mom was always there to protect me. 

I'm not sure if it was that near miss, or the fact that we reached the age where candles overwhelmed the cake, but at some point Mom created a new tradition. Rather than a candle for every year, she put three candles on a birthday cake: 

  • One for all the years past
  • One for this year
  • And one to grow on!

Today, I'm as I blow out my three candles (very, very carefully), I'm going to do exactly what Mom would want me to do. I'm going to make a secret wish and enjoy a day that's 100% Janet. 

But tomorrow? That's the day we've all been waiting for: Our centennial birthday girl has a surprise just for you. Tune in tomorrow to get your gift!

*I hear those wheels turning. You're wondering how you could turn an ordinary day into something special for someone special. Do it! Make Lillian proud. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

100% Lillian: Harry has a Family

Look Up: The Centennial Celebration continues! This Friday -- April 23, 2021 -- marks the 100th anniversary of the day Lillian (Eisen) Sokoloff was born. It's a day to remember, and what better way to celebrate than with a few Mom stories?

Well, there is one better way: We'll wrap things up on Friday with a gift from Mom to you! Stay tuned for that. 

But first, today's story ... 

When Mom lived at Village Shalom, I took her to most doctor's appointments. Once, when the girls were young and I was overwhelmed by work and life demands, I reminded Mom that I wasn't the only child she had in town. Couldn't she ask Harry to take her? Just once? And she said ... 

"Oh, Janet. Harry is working and he has a family." 

To this day, my brother thinks this is one of the funniest things he's ever heard in his life. I am less amused. 

But you're laughing, aren't you? Well, fine. You're right. It is funny. And when I think about Mom, moments like these are what I remember. The moments that were classic Mom, whether she was making me crazy or making me laugh. I miss her daily. 

And, just for the record, my family --  yep, I really do have one -- misses her too. (Are you listening, Mom? Are you laughing? Ah, you are. All good.)

Mom and her favorite son. 

P.S. Do I really think Mom is listening to me? I do believe in souls, and living on in some manner. And I was hugely comforted as we approached this landmark week by my dear friend, Rabbi Vered Harris,  who told me, "Your mom was and is so proud of you."

Doesn't the present tense of that make you happy?

P.P.S. Vered was helping me through an unexpected whiplash of grief. If you had asked me two weeks ago if I was through crying over Mom's loss, I would have said, "Yes. My active grief was done long ago." But then, something out of the blue reminded me of Mom, and there's my birthday, and her birthday, and Mother's Day on the way, and ... WHAM. Waterworks. 

P.P.P.S. Mom first saw Vered years and years ago, when the synagogue I attended saw the power and potential in this young rabbi. Mom -- who periodically mused about the propriety of referring to God as "He" when God could be a "She" --  was very impressed with "the girl rabbi" and loved the idea that the rabbinate was no longer an all-boys club. Trust me, Mom is dazzled by Vered today



Tuesday, April 20, 2021

100% Lillian: Meet Cute

Welcome back to our week-long party, Look Up: A Centennial Celebration! This Friday -- April 23, 2021 -- marks 100 years since the birth of Lillian Sokoloff, so we are 100% Lillian this week! To wrap things up, Mom even has a gift for you on Friday. (What could it be? Look forward to a nice surprise!)

Yesterday, I promised to tell you how Mom and Dad met. Their "meet cute" story illustrates Mom's smarts and creativity. Not to mention her good taste in men. 

Cutie pies. 

Back in the early 1950s, Mom was part of a social sorority -- as I remember, she was the "den mother" of the pack, and most of the girls were a bit younger than she was.  One weekend, the group had a special date night event, a picnic at Swope Park in Kansas City. 

Mom showed up with a date, of course. But, as the group sat around the campfire, she noticed a good-looking man with one of the other girls. She didn't know who he was, but she was determined to find out. How could she get to know him without being obvious? She took the first step, announcing, "Girls, I think it would be a good idea if we go around the campfire, and all introduce our dates."

Everything moved pretty quickly after that introduction. Handsome Allen was equally captivated by beautiful Lillian. After a quick chat at the picnic, they agreed to leave with their respective dates early. Allen dropped his date off and drove over to Lillian's house. It was, for both of them, the second date of the evening, but the first night of their love story. 

P.S. Dad was driving a sports car that night. Mom insists* she saw Dad before she saw the car. 

When you see what you want, dear heart, go for it. 

* I automatically wrote this in present tense. I'm good with that, as I'll explain tomorrow. Party on!

Monday, April 19, 2021

100% Lillian: A Centennial Celebration

Happy Monday and welcome to a very special week. This Friday -- April 23, 2021 -- marks 100 years since Lillian Marie Eisen (briefly Salomon*, then Sokoloff) was born. 

Clearly, we can't let an event of this magnitude slide by without notice! We're going to celebrate in style, with new Mom stories every day this week. We'll wrap up the 100% Lillian celebration with a gift from Mom to you on Friday, so stay tuned for that!

But now, our first story. Random acts of kindness are lovely, but Mom believed in planning ahead. 

The home Harry and Eva and I grew up in was a small three-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch. Like most folks in the 1960s, we had one phone, centrally located in the hallway dividing the living room from the bedrooms. 

Flashback for the young 'uns:
The phone was on a telephone table, much like this. 

Now, Mom loved to talk on the phone, but she had some friends who could talk for hours. And hours. While Mom didn't have the patience for that, she never wanted to be rude and cut them off to hang up. So, she developed a plan: When she wanted to escape the conversation, she would hit the wall by the telephone table three times. If Harry or Eva or I heard that triple knock, it was our job to run to the hallway and loudly proclaim, "Mom! I need you! I need you now! Can you please get off the phone?"

With that excuse, Mom could end the call without hurting anyone's feelings. 

Random kindness? Awesomesauce. Planned kindness? That's 100% Lillian. And we can all be a bit Lillian!

P.S. Look Up: Your Unexpected Guide to Good isn't all about Mom, but it certainly was inspired by her. I know, from the emails and texts and reviews, that the book has been a positive energy source for many of you during the past year, and that makes my heart happy. Is there someone you know who could use it? Buying a copy of Look Up -- or any encouraging guide -- for someone else is a lovely bit of planned kindness. 

* Yep. Mom was married to a dashing young man named Bob Salomon during World War II. After this fairly brief marriage ended, she met my Dad. I'll tell you that story tomorrow ... 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

What We've Lost/What We've Gained

This past weekend, I downloaded Monogamy, a novel by Sue Miller, from the library. I was excited to read it -- I like Miller's writing -- but first went on Goodreads to put the book on my "currently reading" shelf. 

And there it was. On the shelf of books I've already read this year. 

Upper-left corner. Monogamy. Oy. 

That's right. I read Monogamy in January and forgot about it by March.

I'd like to say that's an odd occurrence, but ... no. I'll give you another example: a medical bill for $198. I paid it in February, but the payment apparently crossed paths in the mail with my doctor's second notice. I got that second bill, and promptly wrote another check for $198. 

It's year 2 of the pandemic, and I am not OK. 

Now, as I say that, keep this in mind: I am in the extremely lucky group when it comes to the coronavirus. My family and friends are healthy. I haven't lost anyone to COVID-19. I have worked from home for nearly 20 years, so my daily schedule wasn't turned upside-down last March. The girls are grown; I have not been home-schooling kids or trying to keep toddlers amused while working. 

I count my blessings daily. Truly. I have a list of gratitudes. Still, as we enter the second year of this pandemic, with vaccinations happening and hope in sight, it's important to acknowledge what even the luckiest of us have lost. 

There are people I love dearly -- family and friends -- that I haven't seen in-person for over a year. There are people I love dearly -- family and friends -- that I have only seen from a distance. 

This pandemic year has continually brought home the message that time is precious and no one is guaranteed tomorrow. We have all lost time together. 

Ah, togetherness. How many hugs do you think you've lost in the past year? I'm a hugger. I miss wrapping my arms around someone, drawing them close, and holding them tight -- not for long, but long enough. Long enough. 

One of my dearest friends lost her father to Alzheimer's this past year. When I went to drop off food, I asked for permission to hug her --  and we both were wearing masks, we turned our heads when we hugged (as one does), and I held my breath to keep her safer.


I send "Virtual hugs!" now to friends. It is not the same. We've lost the healing connection of contact.

We've also lost full face-to-face contact -- and that matters. People's faces tell stories. Our wonderful, life-saving masks are essential. No questions; I'm not here to debate the science. That said, I won't deny that those masks change the quality of our communications. When we can't see someone's full face, we lose important body language cues that help us understand each other. 

Is she smiling when she says that? Is it a real smile? Or a forced grin? Who would know? 

For me, the communications challenge is exacerbated. I'm half-deaf. I lip read. Well, I used to lip read. FYI, some of y'all speak awfully softly. 

There are people who have completely fallen off my radar during the past year. Either they didn't reach out to me, or I didn't reach out to them. Or, we checked in with each other at the start of the pandemic, but ... it's been months now, and we haven't spoken. Or Zoomed. Or FaceTimed. 

Relationships have been lost. Maybe they'll be resurrected when life gets back to normal -- or maybe they won't. Maybe that's OK. 

Ah, that sense of normal. Probably should have put this at the top of the lost list, rather than at the bottom. We lost normal last March. 

Will we ever walk into a coffee shop or bookstore again with perfect ease? Will we remember how to have idle water-cooler chit-chat with colleagues? Will we even want to have idle water-cooler chit-chat with colleagues? I'm hearing -- from a surprising number of people -- that they're happier working at home and interacting with fewer people. 

And that brings us to ... 

What We Gained
Yep. I may not have the mental focus required to remember the book I read a month ago or the check I wrote a week ago, but some things never change.

I am still my mother's daughter. And I still seek out the best in a situation, whenever I can. 

So what have we gained? 

No, seriously. I'm asking you: What have YOU gained?

I'll get the answers started with a few examples from my life, but I'd love to see your response in the comments below. 

With this year of losses, I have gained: a deeper-than-ever gratitude for true friends, a new sense of who and what matters most, and a fresh appreciation for free time. (Yes, I used a ridiculous amount of that free time to binge watch Schitt's Creek, Bridgerton, and Virgin River. Still, I also learned how to watercolor and took a pottery class.)

I have gained a rock-solid confidence that even if, "I am not OK," today, I will be OK again. This too will pass. 

Your turn! Tell me: In this year of losses, what have you gained? 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Take Time to Talk

Wednesday afternoon, the weather in KC was so gorgeous that I decided to veer off my typical walking route and hike over to Starbucks for an iced coffee. The walk back took me through our neighborhood park. As I passed the tennis courts, an elderly gentleman -- walking on the other side of the path -- paused a distance away and commented that he was surprised no one was playing tennis. 

Since he had stopped, I stopped. And we took the time to talk to each other. In 10 or 15 minutes of chatting, I discovered a lot about this friendly gent, including:

His name is Homer, and he was married to Wanda Lorraine for 69 years; they got married when they were both 20. Wanda died last January. Not long after that, Homer moved up here from Texas to live with his son, a retired professor. 

His life, he told me, has been filled with joy. He and Wanda met when they were 16 and he knew, right from the start, she was the one. In their 69 years together, there were hard times, of course, but they had a good marriage and raised a family that remains close-knit today. Homer and Wanda were both active in their church. 

She was, he assured me, a wonderful woman.

Homer (who is 91, if you're doing the math) said he stopped playing tennis not too long ago, and tried racquetball, but just didn't like it as much. He still goes for a walk every morning and every afternoon; he figures it's a one-mile path, so he's clocking two miles per day. 

He's starting to feel a little old, he admitted. That's one of the changes since Wanda died. 

Over the years, I've noticed that people often talk to me about their lives, but don't ask about mine. Homer, however, wanted to know my name, and we talked about my family. When I told him Tom and I had been married 35 years, he laughed. "Just getting started," he said. 

Talking to Homer was a moment of pure pleasure in the midst of everything else happening in the universe. He and I wouldn't have shared the joy if we hadn't both slowed down, made eye contact, smiled, and taken the time to talk and listen. 

The moment was good for my soul -- and my creative juju. I haven't had the urge to write a post in weeks. And yet, here we are ...


Old people tell the best stories. 
I'm not even telling you about how a cute girl
prompted schoolboy Homer to switch churches. 
Rest assured, that was before Wanda. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

#MondayMotivation - Listen

Happy new week! We're going to start off with an assignment. This week, I want you to listen to someone whose political viewpoint differs from yours. To make this as doable as possible, I'm giving you two options:

1. Talk to a relative/friend/acquaintance who doesn't vote the way you vote. During the conversation, strive to listen more than you talk. Begin a few follow-up sentences with, "What I'm hearing you say is (whatever). Is that what you mean?" 

2. If you're not comfortable with a direct conversation at this point, then switch off CNN and watch Fox News for at least 15 minutes. If you typically watch Fox, listen to CNN. Read a different newspaper. As you do, focus on the words. Are opinions presented as facts? Do the reporters cite their sources? Are adjectives qualified or simply tossed out there? Words matter. 

I know not all of my blog readers live in the United States, but for my American pals: Politicians alone can't fix this. We all need to step up and do our part. 

Why not now? 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Musings: Five for Friday

As I toy with a return to regular blog posts, I'm considering several new features and -- TAH DAH! -- this is one of them, a quick look back at five lessons learned, fun things, whatevers, from the week. Let me know what you think! 

  1. I'm a lot like my toaster. If I'm not plugged into the right energy sources, I don't work. (My toaster won't allow me to push the toast down if it's not plugged into the wall. My brain won't allow me to create if I'm not rested, hydrated, and focused.)

  2. We can't take democracy for granted. Clark Kent used a phone booth to transform into Superman; we claim our superpower in the ballot box. Every vote matters. 

  3. Creative Mornings remains a creative godsend during this pandemic. If you've never attended one of their free FieldTrips via Zoom, you're missing out. (News Flash: I'll be leading another Creative Mornings FieldTrip soon. I'll keep you posted.)

  4. It's easier than you think to exercise. Pace around your home while on the phone, and you'll rack up a ton of steps. My sister Eva suggested this to me a while back, and it's been great -- especially since I spend a fair amount of time chatting, it's cold and grey in KC these days, and I don't like walking outdoors in snow and slush. 

  5. Virgin River on Netflix is the perfect escape. Gorgeous scenery. Beautiful -- but not too beautiful -- people. Solid story and acting. No mention of politics or the coronavirus. And did I mention the scenery? Ah, I did. Well, if I can't travel right now, I can at least enjoy this view. I can also plan a trip to Canada, where it's filmed. 
Happy weekend, peeps! Abi gezunt

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

#WednesdayWords - George Eliot

Did you know that George Eliot's real name was Mary Ann (or Marian, depending on source) Evans? Her pseudonym both concealed her gender -- a useful move in the 1800s -- and the fact that she was an unmarried woman, living with a married man. 

Basically, George was way ahead of her time. In many ways. She was not conventional in her choices or her appearance. According to a New Yorker article, "Henry James characterized her as 'magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.'"

The same article refers to one man as someone who "declined to fall in love with her."

Isn't that a fascinating idea? The notion that you can "decline" to fall in love with someone? You could write a poem about that. But, I'm going to direct you down a different creative route. For today's creativity exercise, choose a pseudonym -- and make your selection with no regard to gender. 

Then, remember: It's not too late. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Creativity Tip: Seize the Seconds

I heard from a few of you in response to yesterday's post. Yes, you appreciate the enthusiasm and optimism. No, you are not in the mood to carpe diem, much less the whole dang year. 

As my father would have said: Fine. That's fine. Let's try something else. If you're not ready to seize the day, seize the seconds. Let's take, for example, those seconds when you're being a good pandemic person and washing your hands. Rather than singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice, focus on what you're feeling. Pay attention to the water temperature. Enjoy the suds. Give your brain 20 seconds of peace, simply by focusing on the matter, literally, at hand. 

Will you wash all your troubles down the drain? Nope. But you will have proven to yourself that you can carpe moments -- and moments turn into minutes. Minutes into hours. Hours into days. 

You see where I'm going. Work with me, people! Seize the possibility.

Monday, January 4, 2021

#MondayMotivation - Clean Slate!

Do you know what today is? It is THE FIRST MONDAY of the whole year! How cool is that? We've never had this Monday before and we'll never have it again. Only one first Monday of 2021. 

So go do something fun and/or cool and/or scary and/or new and/or relaxing today! Carpe diem, dear. Then carpe the whole dang year.