The Washington Post and the Stories We Need

I am grateful to the Washington Post for giving me the space to share my reflections on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the wake of the violence the community so close to my heart suffered.

The nostalgia around childhood is powerful. At 46, I can visualize my kindergarten cubby and rainbow-colored mat, feel the pebbly summer-camp road under my feet and hear the conspiratorial giggles of my friends gossiping in the girls’ room of my childhood synagogue.

Now that place is one of the most blood-soaked crime scenes in Jewish American history.

Some of the most visceral moments of my life revolve around Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill.

Read the full piece in the Washington Post.

Mothers of Reinvention and Connection

The last few weeks have been intense, but in a positive way. After May, and the schpilkes it tends to bring (Google it – it’s a good Yiddish word to know), June has felt sunny and busy and productive and present tense. Not just a time to get through, but a time to be IN. How are you, people asked, like today at my younger one’s field day, and my answer is  “CONNECTED.” I feel, and I hesitate to even write this down for fear of the evil eye, that at the moment, all areas of my life are overlapping in a very affirming Venn Diagram kind of way.  

I was interviewed last week for the “Spawned” podcast with Liz Gumbinner and Kristen Chase from Cool Mom Picks.  I’ve long admired their site, blog, and podcast, and not just because Liz and Kristen are funny and excellent talkers who you feel like you’ve known forever, but also because they offer practical and useful advice about what to read, what to try, what to cook, and what’s happening in the world of parenting. They cut through the noise – whether it’s a tech issue, a parenting fail or win, or a great idea for teacher’s gifts, they are an excellent resource and always seem to know what’s up. I had a terrific time being interviewed, and it’s instructive for me to hear what seasoned pros bring to a medium (podcasting) I’m working on myself. 

cool mom picks spawned podcast mallory kasdan guest.jpg

The episode is called Mothers of Reinvention, and it was really cool to talk about the ways we've shaped our careers around our families. In talking about my "reinventions," from book publishing to voiceover work to children’s book writing to podcasting, I realized that so many of the MILKs I’ve been attracted to are authors because of that initial book publicist living inside me. Just this month, there are two MILKs with new hardcover titles out, and two with paperbacks. I know how much work it takes to write a book, and though their subject matter is all very different (Essays on marriage, juicy contemporary fiction, middle grade fiction and essays about women and ambition), I am so happy for all of these friends.

My interview on Spawned also helped me realize that years of hanging around actors, musicians, audio people and other creative hustlers really opened me up to questions about how people get from point A to point B, gave me confidence to try things that were non-linear, like podcasting, and how the people I've met in my work travels are all a part of this journey.

So it made sense, last week, that I was invited to attend a women’s collective through two other MILKs, Amanda Harding and Alessandra Olanow. We gathered at Alex’s beautiful home to pool resources, with the idea that what one awesome creative woman can bring to the table, another might need and so on.  It was inspiring and freeing to admit that many of us, working alone on projects and businesses, need community too. As Amanda, a wonderful person who works so hard as a teacher to create a community that gives back, always says, making connections is what it's all about. And Alessandra is such a talented illustrator – check out her work here.

Books by MILKs Ada Calhoun, Julia Fiero, Lisa Greenwald, Liz Wallace & Hana Schank

Books by MILKs Ada Calhoun, Julia Fiero, Lisa Greenwald, Liz Wallace & Hana Schank

On the mommy side, last week was my little one's 8th birthday, which then brings me back to MILK, and to this week’s episode with Journalist Angela Garbes. Angela is a journalist based in Seattle, and her wonderful book is called “Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy.” I hadn’t read about or thought much about pregnancy and new motherhood in a very long while, as most of my MILKs have been more mature moms, but her book is fascinating, super well researched and feminist AF. I was grateful for the opportunity to talk to Angela about how different paths bring us to the same powerful, and vulnerable spaces as mothers, and how we can truly listen and support each other’s stories and choices.

Angela’s interview came at an interesting moment personally, as things tend to do these days. I loved having the opportunity to reflect on my son's birth story, and reconnect with that side of myself – remembering what my body is capable of and celebrating not just his life, but also my life as his and his sister’s mother. Motherhood, as commonplace as it is, is truly miraculous, and it is worth pausing to remind ourselves of this simple fact. 

So it’s full circle with the MILK connections right now, and it all feels lovely.  Happy summer!

Modern Loss in Jersey City

Last night I talked about death in front of strangers and met some fresh MILKs.

wod jersey city modern loss reading

I traveled to Jersey City’s Word Bookstore on a lovely summer evening. Musicians played on the car free street. Kids rode bikes, adults drank cold white wine at outdoor cafes, and a lovely crowd gathered in the bookstore to hear from Rebecca Soffer, co-author of Modern Loss, and four other storytellers, including myself.  Rebecca has been traveling the country since the book came out in January (listen to her MILK Podcast interview here), inviting people to share their own surprising stories about grief and loss.

At the event, I met Caroline Waxler, Sehreen Noor Ali, and Nicole Savini. They each told terrific 6 word memoirs stories about loss, faith, dementia and cancer, but also about how Denzel Washington impressed a Catholic priest more than he should have, how Joan Rivers killed giving her estranged sister’s eulogy, and how a mother struggles to talk to her daughter about the death of a grandparent. These women all spoke with emotion about their late parents, and their combined vulnerability, bravery and empathy are exactly what make The Modern Loss movement so damn special.

word jersey city mallory kasdan modern loss.jpg

I told a story about something that happened after I lost my mom, involving social media, miscommunication, and how grief can bring out the worst in people. The incident, which still lives with me, taught me a lot about trust and how to treat people. It hardened me in some ways, and kept me an empathetic listener, in others.

Reflecting on the five-year anniversary of Judi’s death, coming up next week, I know that I have grown in ways she would be proud. It has not been easy, but I am working on my family relationships. I am trying to raise good humans with my partner, and in my work, I am promoting voices and creating stories that I believe have meaning. I am trying to find the balance, and emulate my mother’s life by living mine with joy, awareness, and compassion.   

Mallory Kasdan, Rebecca Soffer, Nicole Savini, Sehreen Noor Ali, and Caroline Waxler

Mallory Kasdan, Rebecca Soffer, Nicole Savini, Sehreen Noor Ali, and Caroline Waxler

But back to Jersey City. It’s these events, books, and support systems that can help us get to a safe enough place with grief.  And to know that we can live again, we can morph after a loss and still be ok. We share our experiences, and we encourage others to do so, and it makes us better. A middle aged man last night had just lost his brother and niece, and wandered in from the street because he saw the Modern Loss sign outside the bookstore. He shared his own 6 word memoir with us, and we thanked him for doing so. With all of the terrible noise, cynicism and hatred in our culture right now, what a gift to have a few hours to sit with others, listen, cry, clap, laugh and support. Thanks so much Rebecca for letting me be a part of it. 

Transforming

Written by MILK Podcast guest, Nicole Alifante

It’s hard to write about personal transformation when you’re in the middle of one but here goes.  We undergo many transformations in our lives.  Most of mine were by choice. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a professional actress and so I wrote a story for myself based on a traditional narrative. I moved to NYC, I pounded pavement and I made a living as an actress.

When I was 35, my husband and I decided that we would make a baby and so I transformed into a mother. I wrote a story for myself that was based on my own family history. I focused on my child and all things domestic. The artist met the mother and the reality of my life ensued. That transformation was initially harsh and continues to morph as the years go by.

My current state of transformation is born from a narrative that I did not write but one that I am a character in.  I am working toward becoming an anti-racist. I was never consciously racist and I’ve learned that I am not white but rather someone who has come to be called “white” through a long and institutionalized series of cynical choices and policies that built and defines this country. Let me be clear, I benefit from my whiteness every day. Living here in America that means I have three options. I can see black and brown folks as less than myself and actively perpetuate oppression against them. Second, I can acknowledge that black and brown people are presently oppressed as they were hundreds of years ago but in different forms, be sensitive to it yet still do nothing. Or finally, I can refuse to live any longer in a caste system that was not created by me but handed down to me and try to do something about it. I’ve chosen the latter. It’s the ultimate rabbit hole and it’s deep.

With the horror of our current POTUS shaking me to the core: “The wall”, “The travel ban”, “Mexicans are rapists”, “Black people have nothing to lose”, “Law and order”,  “I can shoot someone on 5th avenue and my people will still vote for me”, I began to research the ugly chunk of American history that was never taught to me in my 16 years of schooling (redlining, unfair taxation, housing covenants, criminalization of poverty, etc) and was awakened out of my deep, white sleep.    

I keep hearing Mr. Garner’s voice, “ I can’t breathe.” These days I feel a loss of oxygen with every unarmed black person shot down in the street -- equivalent to modern lynching. This is and always has been America’s existential crisis. Race is a social construct created so “white” people can maintain power, wealth, property and cling to an archaic definition of American identity. It is only with the lesser “others” that “white” can truly exist. What if those others were equal? Then who are we?    

I’m not trying to save people of color. I’d like to think that in my newfound activism, I can help make life better for black and brown Americans through policy change and education but I will be saving myself as well. I want to live in this country if it’s honest. I want to sing the national anthem, say the pledge or vote in a place where not only are “all men created equal” but are also treated as equals. I want the black teenager selling drugs to have the same punishment as the white kid; community service, rehab and a second chance. I want black mothers to know that their sons are safe on the street, like my son. I want reparations, in whatever form, for those oppressed peoples who have endured terrorism on our soil and continue to on a daily basis.

This metamorphosis is lonely. It’s complex. I’m learning a new language, I’m humbling myself, I am asking many stupid but necessary questions and I listen, a lot, to people of color. I’m not able to really look at people in my life right now and discuss this with them. I’m like an undercover agent, the best kind of liar and most days I feel like a dormant volcano.

When you start to read and pay attention, you learn that this country, and its sacred capitalism, was built on the oppression of black and indigenous human beings. It’s a violent, hypocritical place and it’s all documented. The surprise for me was that it was a historical problem and it’s still happening now. The oppression of black and brown people started here in the 1600’s, racism was born out of that oppression and it’s currently running like a well-oiled machine.

The facts are not open for interpretation, which is why it’s not taught to us. Our educators spoon feed the Martin Luther King story in elementary school, slavery and civil rights movement in middle school and high school and the white washing is accomplished. The “good” whites shake their heads at the scars history has left on the black community but only a select few of us come to understand that it’s not a dark psychology born of slavery that keeps blacks down but America’s very laws and policies that are in play and that mutate each generation like a new form of cancer. Slavery has turned to mass incarceration. I wonder now where our new passion for “white nationalism” will lead us?

We have dehumanized people of color, left them bankrupt, angry and afraid but the irony is that we American folks who have come to be known, for purely insidious reasons, as “white” are dehumanized as well. We are property too. We are born criminals without having to spend time in prison. Our entitlement cuts our soul to pieces because all that we have is due to the fact that “others” are purposely made to have not.

In a construct of such inequity the “boot straps” model is a demented illusion. I won’t allow my son to bear this burden. It’s not a burden that even touches the daily cross that American people of color have to bear but it’s profoundly heavy once you are hip to it.

An acting career comes and goes and your children eventually forge their own lives, but the desire to undo racism seeps into your being and takes hold of your psyche forever. This process changes the context of every decision you’ve ever made as a “white” person. A black woman transforming to an actress or a mother will face obstacles that I will never know and that shouldn’t be.  I may not see any real remedies in my lifetime but how many black mothers and fathers left this earth not knowing if their children would ever be unchained? I try to keep in mind that this version of myself is fighting with the hope that our sons and daughters’ America will one day truly be free.

Hear more from Nicole on MILK podcast.