Monday, December 22, 2008

"Hanukah" means "dedication"

When people ask me why we light candles for eight days of Hanukah, I usually tell them that we do so to commemorate a tale of a little flask of oil that survived the destruction of the ancient temple and miraculously enabled the people of Israel to relight the temple's holy flame--designed to stay lit continuously. Despite the fact that the small amount of oil was only enough to keep the flame burning for one day, the flame somehow burned instead for eight days. The magically long-lasting oil allowed sufficient time for more oil to be produced, and thus, the temple could be rededicated to God with its "ner tamid" (eternal flame) properly glowing. Now, some rabbis deem this story an invention told, in part, to heighten the concept of the true miracle that arose from that tragic time in Jewish history: the survival of the steadfast Jewish people against all odds.

I thought about those odds tonight, after lighting the first two candles (we add one per day of the 8-day holiday). How slim were the odds that I would be lighting the commemorative candles tonight with the grandkids of Irving (Itzhak) Lipson (Lipszyc), the one surviving member of his own nuclear family, almost entirely wiped out by Nazis? Now that's a miracle! And how slim were the odds that my children, who have grown up in a minority group within a mostly gentile community, would value their traditions enough to want to share them with both Jewish and non-Jewish friends during the eight days of celebrating? Another miracle to celebrate! How slim were the odds that I--whose own original birth family has mostly abandoned, much to my dismay, the traditions that have held our people together for thousands of years, traditions such as the most essential, enriching, and practical tradition of keeping the Sabbath/Shabbat--would find and maintain such a heartfelt connection to the essence of my people, and realize the meaning of dedication as a means of both continuity and evolution? The odds were roughly the same as the odds of me frying dozens of potato pancakes ("latkes") in a mere teaspoon of oil.

Now, despite its proximity to one of the holiest days for Christians, Hanukah is not one of the holiest days for Jews, but rather, a minor holiday. It's lesson, though, is MAJOR. Jews light candles not just to commemorate a miracle and an uplifting tale, but perhaps more so to reaffirm the strength of dedication, from generation to generation, to a way of life defined by a moral code, service to others for the creation of justice and balance for all, and good deeds that honor and appreciate all of God's creations. This way of life has, like the candles, the power to illuminate--but only if fueled by dedication. Without dedication, the candles are nothing but wax and wick, melted into solid drips, to be scraped off a Hanukah menorah the next morning.

Let us all, no matter what our religions, dedicate (or rededicate) ourselves to staying true to the values that enrich each individual soul and promote harmony for all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A poem to inspire you as you choose holiday gifts for children

Building Blocks
By Susan L. Lipson

Children are the atoms;
adults, the cells formed by chemical processes
and mutations of those fundamental atoms.
If we fill atoms with the white Light of Truth,
they will, through their evolution into "adulthood,"
remain bright, warm, and illuminated,
and chemical reactions from others
will cause refractions of that Light,
producing rainbows—
colorful adults showing themselves
through the Oneness of the Creator's Light.
Without the infusion of the Light at the atomic level,
from childhood,
our growth as adults is tantamount to
a slow dimming of the spark that we bring to this planet
when we first arrive.
We must continuously stoke the fires,
our passions for beauty's truth and truth's beauty,
adding art, music, and literature as kindling,
and then fanning the flames with love, inspiration, and respect--
the greatest gifts we can give our children
and our future generations.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lessons from a Morning at a Soup Kitchen

Yesterday I served breakfast/brunch at St. Vincent de Paul's soup kitchen. It wasn't my first time serving, and my shift wasn't even marked by any dramatic events (like the time a father tried choking his baby, or the time a homeless guy started yelling hateful anti-Semitic comments at our Jewish group of volunteers); however, I realized something profound on this relatively peaceful day at the shelter: Very few people choose whom they want to be, while most allow their identify to be formed for them, by their circumstances.

Some of the homeless folks I've served have addressed us volunteers by name (we wear name tags), thanking us for giving our time to help them, even blessing us and asking the name of our organization so they can remember our generosity. Perhaps a few of these non-despondent food recipients will use their amiability and confidence to redefine themselves the way one woman did; I volunteered alongside her a few months ago ("Hey, it's my turn to give back now," she explained). But the majority of the recipients seem despondent, hanging their heads, looking surprised when a volunteer calls them "Sir" or "Miss," and smiling awkwardly at friendly greetings and wishes. The most downtrodden can't even muster a "thank you," because that would define them as a civilized member of society, and they don't feel part of anything, apparently. The capacity to say "thank you," I've noticed, is very indicative of one's self-esteem...and not just at the soup kitchen.

Even among the volunteers, I've met those who are serving NOT as an act of choosing whom they want to be, but rather, as a the fulfillment of an obligation imposed by others. Some people I've met give their time because their kids need "credit" for a school program, and so both parent and child serve to fulfill an obligation. Others volunteer because someone else dragged them along so they wouldn't feel awkward as they satisfied their curiosity about homeless people. And I've met some, among the many Jewish volunteers, who do this because "I really need to do a mitzvah--it's been a while." (A "mitzvah" is a commandment from God that one should fulfill.) In short, despite the fact that goodness is accomplished in any case, regardless of the motives of the do-gooder, the goodness itself does not always define the do-gooder.

When another volunteer asked me why I serve there, I answered, "Because they have so little, and I have so much. It's only fair." It's justice--or as we say in Hebrew, tzedek, a balancing of inequities in an attempt to foster peace. I choose to define myself as a do-gooder for the sake of establishing peace, one minuscule step at a time. Now, you might say, "But actually, your circumstances, as a well-off person, have defined you as a giver. Had you been born on the street, you wouldn't have chosen whom you want to be, as you say, so easily." And you may be right. As a street person, I may not have been the type to harness my circumstances and steer my way to personal happiness and a life of helping others. I may never know (I HOPE I never know!) whether I am that type. Very few struggling people are that tough and optimistic. But I think it's important that I, and those reading this blog, realize that ANYONE could be homeless--it's a state, not an identity. Choosing whom I want to be, even without the luxury of a computer at my fingertips, a full refrigerator in the other room, and a warm house on a rainy day, is not about coping with circumstances; it's about creating new circumstances.

No matter whom we choose to be, though, if goodness results, that's what really matters, isn't it? It's all good, as my kids say. Kol tov! It's all good.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

After seeing David Wolpe, author of WHY FAITH MATTERS, debate atheist author Christopher Hitchens

After watching a debate between authors David Wolpe (a renowned rabbi) and Christopher Hitchens, in which they argued the existence of God, I felt inspired to write the following words, to bolster the rabbi's assertions. I'm not idealistic enough to believe, of course, that God's existence can be definitively "proved" to nonbelievers, but I am idealistic enough to think that we can create chinks in the armor with which they steel themselves. And since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I post these words as additional thanks to God for enabling me to perceive the divine connections around me.

Nothing exists by itself; everything is part of a greater whole, an unwritten, unspoken Covenant of Being. Isolation is an artificial state contrived to work against the interconnectedness of the natural world. Even actions, as Newton proved, have equal and opposite reactions, and never occur without interconnection. The rock is part of the crumbled mountain—or the sandy beach, solidified. The lone wolf is still part of the pack, and part of his environmental system. The seed, via photosynthesis, is connected to the oxygen that sustains us, as well as the chemicals that break down our bodies when we die. The suicide bomber is connected to a community and to his victims, despite his attempt to sever that connection. The atom is part of a larger cell, and part of the universe. Humans are all part of each other’s existence, and the existence of every being, sentient or not, with whom we share this planet. Natural laws show us that a common thread always connects disparate things in this universe. Again, nothing exists by itself, and no one can deny this unavoidable connectedness between all things.

So, what is the common thread that connects everything? I ask atheists to identify this supreme Connector. They will, of course, try to find some scientific explanation, something that does not in any way acknowledge religious beliefs—despite the fact that many of the world’s most brilliant scientists acknowledged that their answers ended with that very question. But no one can deny the existence of this unifying thread, whatever they choose to call it. Both simple and brilliant minds identify it as “God,” or some alternate name related to this intangible entity. Thus, without any better name, I assert that GOD is the thread that connects you to me, and us to everything. And even the atheist, who denies that which connects him to his world, will learn this truth someday, when his brain expires and mere thinking gives way to understanding—the soul’s domain.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Risk of Writing Words To Be Remembered

When we add our words to the body of verbiage awaiting readers' responses, we take a risk that our words a) may not have any impact, b) may be remembered, but not for the reasons we intended, and c) may evoke lasting images and/or ideas that will, in some way affect another human being, thus altering the entire chain of actions and reactions that we call LIFE. Now, c may sound overblown, even hyperbolic, at first glance, but it's not, and I can prove it, and in doing so, risk altering the way YOU, my reader, consider what YOU write in the future by forcing you to evaluate your words in terms of "memorability."
When I wrote my first children's novel, Knock on Wood, I recall a woman coming up to me in tears at a book-signing and saying, "You have no idea how much I can relate to your story! I lost my father when I was 10, AND my name is Sara [like the book's protagonist], and I also had to move out of my house, AND I used to imagine friendly faces in the wood panels of my walls, even talk to them...." I didn't know how to react to this woman's gushing reaction to my work; she wasn't exactly part of my target audience--9-13 year olds--AND she was crying, which could mean that my words were memorable to her, but for painful reasons that I had not intended to create.
After a moment of startled hesitation, I responded, perhaps lamely, with an awkward smile,"So you can really relate to Sara's situation, I guess."
"Oh yes!" she replied. "It brings back a lot of memories." She wiped her eyes.
"Well, I hope SOME are good," I muttered apologetically.
Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth in surprise. "Oh, of course they're good! I'm vividly remembering how I was when I was 10, I had to find my own strength to deal with my fears of moving. I wish I could have had a wise tree fairy to ask for advice! Oh, please don't think I'm crying because I'm upset! I'm actually happy!"
I smiled and shook her hand. "Oh, well I'm glad my book moved you then. Thanks for sharing your story." I still wondered why a woman was reading my work, when the rest of those in line to get my autograph on their copies were middle-graders. And if she had already read it, why was she holding out a copy to be autographed?
"THIS copy is actually my own already. I bought it a couple weeks ago at a teacher's event at Barnes & Noble that featured you among the local authors. Would you sign it for me, personally, and then sign a second one for my students?" She lifted a new copy from the table beside me and handed both copies to me.
On the memorability scale, this scored me high points: I had moved a teacher with my words, and she, in turn, could move young readers by recommending or reading aloud my book to them. They, in turn, might find my words memorable, but for different reasons. So how does this minor blip in the world's major events "alter the entire chain of actions and reactions that we call LIFE"?
Let's say that I awakened in this teacher her inner child and her own self-esteem for that former self. She can now relate to her students on a deeper level (maybe her own family, too), and may even dredge up other childhood memories that enable her to connect to young people in ways she has never connected before. Her enriched appreciation of kids' perceptions will enrich her teaching and, by extension, her students' learning experience. An inspired teacher inspires students, who will then take THEIR positive memories of education and inspire other children someday with their fond memories. And maybe one of those children to whom Sara, the teacher, reads or recommends my book will be going through his or her own challenges related to moving--and moving on--in life; thus, that connection through literature would certainly alter the lives of at least two people in a small, but nevertheless important way. Words have the power to change the world, period.
We all owe it to our world to test our words for memory-making potential before we set them to paper or screen. Writing is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Our words speak for us and about us, to others and about the future.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Blessing for the Creator of the IPod

May the creator of the IPod be blessed with the gift of musical silence, the interior soundtrack that sets the tone of my thoughts while the rest of the world mutters on around me, unable to distract me from my ideas. May the creator of the IPod share the fulfillment I experience after hours of listening to my favorite music, reliving memories that I can record as memorable words. May the creator of the IPod feel protected by the outer silence and inner music, safe enough to sing aloud as though everyone were hearing the same songs. May the creator of the IPod know the joy of isolation within a melody. Amen!

My musical choices for writing and beach walks these days: Jason Mraz's newest album, Celtic Woman, Meorav Yerushalmi, Idan Raichel, Maroon 5, James Blunt, Coldplay, Colbie Caillat, ONCE/The Swell Season, Death Cab for Cutie, and my own kids' original songs, "Pleaser/Appeaser" by Ian, and "Question," by Elle. Now, if I only had an album of my OWN original songs (I must have 40 written by now!), but perhaps soon, on my Myspace... My songs are, in my opinion, my most memorable words; any words accompanied by music, for that matter, are more memorable.

Oh, and speaking of memorable words, one of my students pulled out of his backpack a Thanksgiving choral reading that I wrote and directed in a classroom 20 years ago, and last directed when my now-college-age daughter was in 4th grade; he announced that his teacher was having his class perform the reading for the school (apparently, the teacher--who was my daughter's teacher--has used it throughout the years)! I felt the joy of memory-making that comes so profoundly from writing memorable words.

New Poem

Covenant of Hope
By Susan L. Lipson

The seed is the promise;
The planting, an act of faith;
The seedling, evidence of a covenant fulfilled;
The plant is prosperity and promise;
The fruit, the fruition of dreams;
The seed, the future—
Ever present.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Check out my blog for students and teachers of writing!

While this blog will present ponderings on writing and life, and excerpts from my works, all from an author's perspective, I will simultaneously post blogs about learning and teaching writing techniques on this URL: .
Check it out if you're an aspiring writer or a teacher of writing!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Writing for Change (Checks Accepted, Too!)

Making change is my life goal--not counting back pennies from behind a counter, but offering my two cents from my computer keyboard, and my common sense from the experiences I have both enjoyed and endured. Maybe that's why Barack Obama's campaign slogan, "Vote for Change," struck such a chord in my heart. Change yields evolution. Evolution brings us all closer to fulfilling our potential, and inspiring others to do the same. And we evoke change via communication, which I have chosen as a career by becoming both a writer and a teacher.

Obama's message inspires me now, in this blog, to review my career in terms of its change-making history and potential. With two books in print, I have managed to make change on a small level: children who read my first novel, Knock on Wood, change their perspective regarding the unseen benefits of moving forward in life, even if that movement involves painful sacrifice (I have fan letters to prove it!); teachers who use my second book, Writing Success Through Poetry, to prompt critical thinking and writing in their classrooms within an interactive workshop style of teaching, have changed their own and their students' attitudes about writing; students who have created works from the poetry prompts in my book have proudly published some of those pieces, and now view writing as a challenge to communicate, rather than a task to do for a grade. So my previous books, although hardly blockbuster bestsellers, have produced positive change.

That change also shows up in the teaching aspect of my career. My private writing students change my expectations by writing words that awe me, as well as their fellow workshop students, who then change their level of effort in a desire to emulate the awesome words they hear read aloud in my home. My students change my methods continuously, by presenting different learning styles and interests, to which I must cater so that I may elicit their very Best, and thus, by extension, continue to change the attitudes of their regular school teachers, who marvel at the changes they observe in our shared students. My young writers change their world by writing essays that get them into great colleges, by publishing poetry they created under my tutelage, by winning contests, and by simply winning enthusiastic applause during workshops in my home. I change my students by showing them the power of carefully chosen words, memorable words that really matter, words that resonate in others' minds and act as catalysts for change.

I catalyze change most, I believe, via communication with my own children, who have evolved into Change-makers themselves...and strong writers, of course! Their memorable words not only get them great grades (and a great college, USC, for my oldest), but most importantly, they comprise my favorite gifts, years of beautifully written cards and songs that fill my files with my greatest personal treasures. Their words are treasures that change gloomy days into joyous ones with the opening of a file or the playing of their CD recordings for me.

My husband's memorable words have changed my life for the last 29 years; he claims he's "no writer, like [me]," but he's wrong. His letters to me throughout years were among the precious cargo I whisked out of our home during the forced evacuations for Firestorm 2007. He has made me change for the better by simply noticing how I make change in life: he enjoys my stories about student breakthroughs, even remembers the pieces I recall to him after a successful class; he has written me supportive messages about my justifiable persistence in my writing career--and he lets me whine, too. I think he understands my motivation for writing--the desire to change the perspectives of my readers in some way. Thus, I can enrich the world in my small way. Making small change--no, I'm not complaining about lack of royalty checks!--small change is what my life is all about. Memorable words are my tools.