“Breathe in deeply, and take one slow step with each breath…,” I told my Zoom class one morning. I watched as everyone bowed their heads, gazed down, and began a walking meditation. Everyone except my mother, who sat in a pink blazer and full make-up, pounding away on her laptop. Having my mother in my class was going to take some getting used to.
I’ve lived within a few miles of my mother nearly my entire life. Yet, aside from the holiday season when we’re historically swallowed whole Rosh Hashanah through Boxing day, I’ve rarely seen her more than once every few months. It wasn’t until the global pandemic isolated us from each other, that we began seeing each other regularly.
It started with the biweekly family zoom check-in. Week by week we zoomed in, peered out from our squares, spoke one at a time and checked in. The questions were basic. Like a roll call we asked “how are you?” and responded in kind, “I love you. Let us know how we can help.”
Then, when the city closed down, all of my teaching and workshop gigs vanished. I redefined my entire business and launched Narrative Healing online, a variety of embodied writing sessions, an outgrowth of years in publishing and teaching writing and yoga workshops. Right away I started offering three livestream sessions a week called Narrative Healing Labs.
To my surprise (okay, honestly it was dismay at first) my mom, who is a writer, signed up. I mean who really wants a parent at their weekly work meeting? Yet there she was. She came to my class and alongside other students, put her head down as I offered mindfulness exercises, writing prompts and a watchful eye.
Watching my mom write is not new to me. She has authored nearly twenty books and one of my earliest memories is watching her write, often with a lipstick stained teacup nearby and lacquered nails pounding on the keyboard. The tickety-tack of nails hitting keys, the occasional sigh, and sound of teeth gently biting into a pencil between sentences was like a lullaby.
The whole house hushed when she was writing; doors closed, with invisible signs everywhere that read “do not disturb” and “Shhhhh…” I understood something important was happening there, something sacred. Something I wanted to know more about and something behind a closed door.
My mom taught me about the importance of a room of one’s own, by always having a room of her own, and also by shoving Virginia Woolf into my dirty little hands when I was seven years old. She showed me what it looked like to prioritize creative life, by giving it power and time on a daily basis. Growing up, it also felt like something that took her away from me, something that was hers and not mine or ours.
I also learned, through the stories of my ancestors, that reading and writing is a gift that I cannot take for granted. I need to tend to and protect this right. My Welsh great grandmother was illiterate and signed her name with an X. Miraculously two generations later multiple women in my family have published books. My Jewish grandmother defied cultural norms and taught reading for decades in her small town in Long Island at a time most women didn’t work. She regularly announced, “reading is the most important thing in life!” and then added, “it is something that no one can take away!”
So, watching women write in my family was nothing new, what was new was sharing the space.
At some point early on in the pandemic, my Mom became a regular in my weekly writing sessions. She came every Friday. Over the year, my shock moved to acceptance. It seemed odd to me at the time, I couldn’t understand why she came. The sound meditations and wrist rolling I offered were a far cry from the Century Club, stiletto heeled power suit world she was accustomed to. There was a moment half way through that I became fed up, why was she coming if she wasn’t going to pay attention?!
I texted her: Mom, it’s been great having you in class, but do you think we take a break? I really want to focus on being mother and daughter instead of me being your teacher? A week later, I received a letter from her saying how much she loved my Narrative Healing class. It’s one of the only things carrying me through the isolation of lockdown, she wrote. Because of the delay in the mail delivery system during the election, it had taken her letter over a week to arrive; I realized to my horror that I had texted her while it was in transit. I wept for days when I realized how much I had hurt her and I quickly invited her back.
When she returned, she returned as a member of the group, and as my mom. She started addressing everyone as “sweetheart”. After discussing it with her, I slowly started calling her Mom, instead of Sylvia in class. She even started following along with various yoga-for-writers sequences, always wearing sunglasses and somehow voluminous glamorous hair with perfect highlights (I later learned my father had taken up helping her dye her hair by week four of the lockdown).
One session that stands out happened right around when we hit the year mark of lockdown. We were all losing our minds a bit. Needing inspiration, I returned to a favorite prompt. I asked everyone to pick out a hit song from a pivotal moment in their life. I gave them an app to search for their song of choice, and instructed them to mute themselves and crank up the volume. I began instructing a kind of bounce and shake movement (a sneaky way of asking them to dance). I asked them to pay attention to any stories, feelings, associations or memories that came up. They were invited to move away from their screens for privacy, but none of them did. Before I knew it I was hosting a zoom dance party with my mom. I watched as some of them shook their heads around, others hopped up and down, and my mom lifted her wrists into the air and kind of swayed around. As if in slow motion, she began sashaying her hips from side to side and raising her face to the sky. It reminded me of happy memories of my parents dancing with each other after relaxed dinners in the country. Beneath her sunglasses, I could see that she was smiling.
After a few minutes I invited everyone to write about anything that came up and then share. There was a halo of concentration around each of them and a joy that wasn’t there before. One student who was battling brain cancer at the time began weeping with said, “I haven’t felt good in my body for ages.” The room cracked open and one by one they cried as they shared what came up. My Mom’s song was “Mrs. Robinson”. With wet eyes she shared the song, “felt like an end to an era, when women were only out for themselves and were competitive with each other,” She added, with a wink, “We’re not like that now, what we’re doing here is the exact opposite of that.”
At that moment, maybe for the first time, I felt truly in the same room, the same space as my mom. I felt seen. Throughout the pandemic we have shared a creative practice together, both during my weekly writing sessions, and on the sporadic masked walks we took in Central Park. As the year wore on, we delicately walked over fallen leaves, icy patches and then snowdrops and daffodils. We shared stories about what we were working on, what we were reading and thinking about. We skimmed past the alarming news of the day, and set our gaze together on the power of words and beautiful language to uplift, transport and connect. Day by day, week by week, this creative refuge became our shared space. It became a practice. It became a Zoom of Our own.
A year later, practicing week by week, together, we’ve both made some progress (I signed with a literary agent and my mother has a draft of her next book, a memoir about losing her sister, my namesake). Without knowing it, or planning on it, when the world closed down, we emerged from our separate spaces, rushed in and ferociously protected our right to create and to be together.
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