Wednesday, April 2, 2014


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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Own Your Bones

I sat down this morning to meditate. One of my rituals is to choose a card from my “Wisdom of the Crones” deck. I bought it a couple of years ago when I was about to have my hysterectomy, which seemed at the time to be a dividing line between my youth and my old age. I’m only 51, but I’ve wanted to embrace my “crone-ness” for a while now. My long gray hair, my wrinkles, my less-than-svelte figure. I am all about honoring that, some of it being harder than others. At the same time I have cultivated friendships with women in their older years, whose wisdom and humor and insight inform my life in such powerful ways. I want to be like them. And I want to be that to other, younger women, too. This is why I choose a card from my Crone deck. Sage Woman Inspiration. I have used those cards for art journaling prompts and for meditation focus and they always give me something good to consider.

Today I sat down to meditate with this question: Why can’t I make up my mind?

I just returned from three days away from it all: my life, my family, my responsibilities. I went to the beach, solo, to find some clarity. What I definitely found was peace and quiet. The soothing sound of the waves, the warm sun on my skin. The cool sand beneath my feet. I read, I wrote, I napped, I walked. It was a fantastic respite from life as I know it.

I went to find clarity. And while I was there, I had it.

I stayed at the beach house of some old friends of ours, Sam and Ilana, and it is such a haven, all wood that glows, comfy furniture, a view of the ocean. They so generously offered their home to me (they mostly use it on the weekends) and that was such a gift. Taking a break from the non-stopness of my life, the distractions of my life, is so hard to do and so important. It was a true retreat.

After three open and quiet days you think I’d have more clarity about what I want to do, what I want to focus on. Specifically, I was hoping to gain clarity about my new passion for teaching art journaling and my new focus of sharing myself with the world via a new website, classes in person and online, and a gallery of my work.

I went to find clarity. And when I came home, I lost it.

I am in the middle of Megan Auman’s Do/Teach ecourse, readying myself to launch my “signature” online course. It is a class packed with information and opportunities and I’m learning so much, but I’m also falling behind because I can’t seem to pinpoint what the hell I want to do and what people want to learn from me. One of my problems is that I have so many ideas! (Not a problem, Megan says, put them on your list for later.) I go back and forth between them trying to find the perfect one, the one that will entice the most people, the one I am the most passionate about and the most prepared to teach. 

As soon as I think I have a grasp on what I want to do, what my next class offering should be, how to describe myself, it seems to slip through my fingers, just like sand, and is lost in the swirl of ideas, fears of failure, and too many options.

Last night, as I continued to stew about the topic for my very first online offering, it actually occurred to me that maybe I don’t even want to be an art journaling guru.

At the beach I thought I’d landed on the one. I got excited about the possibilities. When the questions and niggling doubts surfaced, I recognized that this wasn’t the only course I’d ever teach, my other ideas would have their time, too. And coming home from the beach was sort of a deadline. Time to move forward with that idea. But, actually, coming back home feels more like coming before the Judge and suddenly I don’t feel very resolved after all.

Judge: And Susie, what have you to say about your chosen path?

Me: Um, Your Honor, I think I would like to teach courses in person that combine art journaling, expression and self-reflection. And I’d like to do the same online.

Judge: I’m sorry, Susie, but I don’t know that you have enough experience with that. Have you published your art journal pages in national magazines?

Me: Well, no.

Judge: Have you published books full of beautiful art journaling pages of your own creation?

Me: Um, no, no I haven’t.

Judge: Are you aware that there are many other famous art journalists out there who have over 2000 likes on Facebook and a following of thousands more on their blogs? Are you aware that people pay good money to travel around the world to their art and creativity retreats?

Me: Yes, yes Your Honor. I am quite aware of that. I may have even liked some of their Facebook pages myself.

Judge: They’re famous, Susie Miller. What about you?

Last night I thought, “Maybe you should have spent some time considering the possibility that all of this is a fraud, that you don’t really want to be an art journaling teacher.”

As much as I might think that that is me talking, me being cautious, I realize now that that is one of my Inner Critics. It is the voice that throughout my life has led me away from really pushing myself to achieve greatness. Throughout my life that voice has always been so well dressed that I really always believed that I didn’t want to compete, that I didn’t want to get to that top spot in anything I did. For all my life, Really Goodness is all that I aspired to. Greatness just is not something I was interested in. “I’m not at all competitive,” I’d tell people. “I’m not at all competitive,” I’d tell myself.

It’s only lately that I realize that in fact I’m quite competitive, but I am afraid to put myself out there to really compete. And by compete I mean to be as big as I can be. I’m afraid to lose. I’m afraid to look like a fool. I’m afraid to find out that I’m not enough.

I might even be afraid to find out how big I actually am.
Throughout my life I have developed intricate and convincing strategies for avoiding competition. In junior high, rather than practice my ass off on the flute and compete for first chair in band (against my best friends, in fact, which made the stakes even higher), I decided to play piccolo. My flute teacher was one of the preeminent piccoloists in the world, playing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so he was a good person to study piccolo with, no question. And it was really fun. Piccolos had solos, so I got to shine since other kids weren’t rushing out to get a piccolo to compete against me.  That lasted all through high school. I was head piccoloist in the marching band and wind ensemble. I never did make it to orchestra (where the best wind instrumentalists would be) because I just didn’t have time. That didn’t interest me. And of course, that would mean stepping up my piccolo and flute playing game to a whole new level…and competing.

Another strategy I’ve employed was becoming Jill of All Trades, Master of None. I’m almost a master of many though. I can knit well, I can sew well, I can write well. But I don’t push myself to go to the next level. Recently, I was outed about my guitar playing. I took up guitar 32 years ago and became a songleader, guitar in hand, almost immediately. For most of that time it’s been easy to do well. I’ve taught at preschools, Jewish schools, led songs around campfires, and noodled around at home. But a couple of weeks ago I was rehearsing with my friend Lorenzo, who I sing with at my new synagogue, Congregation Ner Shalom, and it came up that I didn’t want to, nay couldn’t, play any songs that had bar chords. Now a bar chord is a chord that requires you to press your index finger down across all the strings while using your other fingers to form the chord and for me it’s very hard to do. Whether it’s that my guitars don’t have narrow enough necks for the size of my hand or that I don’t have enough hand strength or I just never tried hard enough to practice it until I got it perfect, I’ve just never mastered bar chords in these past 32 years. I’ve avoided them, transposed songs that had them, and used my capo to change the key. When I play by myself I can get around it. But with other guitarists? I have to either bow out or convince them to play in a key that works for my basic chord skills. “I’ve never needed to play bar chords in 32 years,” I told Lorenzo that night, “and I’m 51 and, dammit, I don’t have to start now.” He laughed, we laughed, and I put my guitar down for the songs we were rehearsing that had bar chords and just sang. Lorenzo is an exceptional classical guitarist. I can’t do any of the stuff he can do on guitar. And he’s also a sweetheart. So he let me be. But a couple nights later, warming up for services, he let slip to one of the other musicians that I can’t play bar chords and I felt exposed. I don’t know Suzanne well. She’s an amazing guitarist and she just looked at me quizzically. Suddenly my years of avoidance seemed pretty ridiculous and I had to cop to having avoided a mainstay of guitar playing.

In January I organized a gathering of women friends. We sat together and talked about manifesting big dreams for ourselves in the coming year. I led them in visioning and meditation, conversation and brainstorming. At one point in the evening, as I led a guided meditation, I thought to myself, "You can be as big as you are. You need to be as big as you can be. Own your bigness." I breathed in deeply and I really felt it. I was expanding to fill my own space in the universe.

Later I posted that thought on a private Facebook community I belong to. But autocorrect autocorrected "bigness" to be "bones" and I didn't notice. One of my friends pointed it out. "I love that! Own Your Bones! I'm going to use that!" she said.
I've needed to remind myself repeatedly to be in my body, to breathe into my bigness. It makes me wonder: Do naturally competitive people have trouble with that? Do they have to remind themselves to stay present in their own space?

Over the years I’ve found competitive people rather obnoxious. Not my type. Now I’m wondering if really, I just find their focus on being the best intimidates me and makes me face my own fear of failure. 

This swirling brain, indecision, and my thought that maybe I should reconsider is, in fact, one of my Inner Critics stepping in to save the day. “Don’t put yourself out there! Don’t work too hard on this! You don’t really want to do this! What if no one signs up? What if you fail?”

Truth is, I haven’t failed much in my life. I can do so many things really well and I’ve mostly succeeded with those things I’ve done. I think that if I smell failure as a possibility, I run like hell the other direction, only to other people it looks like I just changed my mind and am off to create in another one of my artistic realms.

But here are a few of the things I haven't done: Submitted my art journaling pages to a magazine for publishing, written a book proposal for my memoir about Ben, submitted pieces from this blog to magazines for publishing...I haven't even decided if I want to self-publish my book or find an agent. But of course finding an agent means being rejected...that goes without saying. And so, you get the picture.

This morning when I sat my butt down on my cold metal stool and put my feet flat on the floor in front of my altar, I decided to ask the cards for some wisdom. “Why can’t I seem to find my focus? Why can’t I choose a course topic?” I asked as I held the deck of glossy cards. I closed my eyes and shuffled them in my hands. I waited until I had the sensation that this was the card to pull out. I sensed it, and pulled, and then I sensed it again, and pulled another. I laughed at myself. Of course, I can’t even choose one class topic, why would I be able to choose one card? When I opened my eyes, I laughed even harder. I’d unwittingly chosen three cards instead of two, my indecision more profound than I was even aware.

The cards were: Acceptance, Summer, and Strength.

Ok, Universe, tell me what they mean.

There are descriptions on the back of each card and here are the lines that resonated:

Acceptance: Love yourself completely and unconditionally.

Summer: Make time.

Strength: Strength is the determination to follow through.

Perhaps I need to do this. Make time to love myself completely and unconditionally. And make time to really follow through on my ideas. Envision myself as the artist and push myself to be the artist. Damn the competition. Be as big as I can be. Own my bones.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

L'dor va Dor: From Generation to Generation

When I was preparing for Harry's Bar Mitzvah about seven years ago, I put these words on his invitation:
We carry the past in our hands.

To me, one of the most significant and meaningful aspects of the Bar Mitzvah rite of passage is its value to us as a historical and cultural tradition. Jews are constantly recalling the past. Every service has us singing songs and praying prayers that have been passed down for generations, if not eons. Every Rosh Hashanah we hear the sound of the shofar (the ram's horn trumpet blown at the end of the service), a sound that pierces the soul, which you can imagine being blown from the mountaintops of the Promised Land millennia ago, calling the tribes to prayer. The words Toby learned to read and chant from the Torah are the same words with the same melody read for thousands of years by our ancestors.

In a world where everything feels so immediate, and often so ephemeral, it's something else to stop and realize that you are carrying on a tradition that began over 5,000 years ago. The tradition of your people.

I have always felt very connected to my Judaism, my Jewishness. Even though I was raised in a secular Jewish home (no belief in God) and attended a secular Jewish kindershul (history and culture, no religion, per se), I always felt wholly Jewish. When I married Mark I cemented that feeling. He was a New York Jew, and his Jewish identity was a given for the most part.

Our kids have grown up in a very assimilated world, but we have always kept a Jewish consciousness for them at home. Synagogue, Hebrew school, music, holidays, family events, conversation, traditions, rituals, foods, values. All that is tightly woven into our lives. We aren't the most observant nor the most consistent with our practices, but we do have a tradition.

So it was that a few days before Toby's big day it suddenly hit me that I had not added anything special to his service and as the "cantorial soloist" for the service and the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy, it was my prerogative to do so. I searched my files and files of songs, but it didn't take long to decide on L'Dor va Dor by Josh Nelson. I've loved this song for several years and it was just the message that I wanted to share.

The passing along of the tradition. The history of our people. The role Toby was playing in the line of his ancestors. All of that is so important to me.

In addition, this song is so beautiful and easy to sing and most of it is in English. We had a lot of friends there who could not access the prayers and songs in Hebrew. I wanted this message to be shared and understood. I wanted to move people with this prayer.

It was an excellent choice. Many people have told me that they loved it and would love to hear it again. I am always glad to introduce a new and beautiful piece of Jewish music to my community.

Here are the words. The video, above, is Josh Nelson, the composer and an amazing musician.

L'Dor va Dor
by Josh Nelson

We are gifts and we are blessings
We are history in song
We are hope and we are healing
We are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories
We are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom
Not the first and not the last

L’dor va-dor nagid gad-lecha
L’dor vador, we protect this chain
From generation to generation
L’dor vador, these lips will praise Your name

Looking back on the journey
That we carried in our hearts
From the shadow of the mountain
To the waters that would part
We are blessed
And we are holy
We are children of Your way
And the words that bring us meaning
We will have the strength to say


Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Toby with one of his little buddies at Pastures.

Weeks before Toby's Bar Mitzvah, I began to ponder what I would say to him during the "parents' speech" moment in the service. You see, after the prayers and blessings and passing of the Torah through the generations, after the sermon and the Torah reading and the blessing from the rabbi, there comes a moment when everyone pulls out a hankie and the parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah march up to the podium to speak about their beloved child. I have rarely heard a parent not say something eloquent. I am almost always moved by their tender reminiscences, their insights into their child, and their quavering voices. It's a momentous occasion and calls for an exceptional speech. I wanted to do Toby proud.

Mark and I are good editors for each other. We've always weighed in on each others' writing. We also have a tendency to say the same thing when we are working, separately, on a speech for a particular occasion. It happened when we both wrote eulogies for Mark's father's funeral. It's happened other times as well. So, when I asked him, "Have you thought about what you're going to say on Toby's Bar Mitzvah?" I shouldn't have been surprised when he suggested we write a speech together.

"We're just going to end up saying the same thing anyways. Let's just start off together," he said. And that seemed like an excellent idea.

Writing it was fun. We quickly got into a groove. I wrote a big chunk. He went in, edited and wrote some more. I went back in, edited and added more. He edited. We polished together. We practiced. We honed. We're a good team.

We kept it a secret. We knew all of our kids would be surprised by the theme. What we didn't expect was the response we would get from Toby, his brothers, our niece, and many, many friends and relatives. Toby said, "Wow." From Harry, "Why didn't you give that speech to me for my Bar Mitzvah?!" My niece, apparently, turned to her father and said, "Top that." (Her Bat Mitzvah is in April!) Over all, the reaction was: What a wonderful way to honor Toby.

That was our intent. It's a very satisfying thing to be able to say out loud, in front of hundreds, what you know about your child. It's also very satisfying to tell it to your child, in such a moment...standing on the threshold of young adulthood...time stops and you grab his attention.

This is what we said:



     Toby, we are both so proud of you and what you have accomplished today. This year, preparing for this day has been an incredible journey. You worked incredibly hard, you never complained, you felt the weight of your responsibilities. You came at it with your typical sunny attitude. And you’ve shown us what perseverance, hard work, and practice, practice, perfect practice can accomplish. You’ve given us insights into the Torah and leadership. And you’ve led us in a beautiful Shabbat service. All major accomplishments. We’re so proud.


     As much as this might be a moment, when you stand before us and we have your attention, to teach you something important that we know, to share with you some little life secrets that parents are the keepers of, before we send you on your way into adulthood, Toby, we have to say that what we want to tell you right now is that you have everything you need to know right there inside you. You were born knowing what to do to lead a full and rich and joyful life.


     We were thinking we could talk right now about your leadership qualities, since that was your focus for your sermon. But, really, you already did a great job with that. However, being the third of three brothers, we think it’s really important for you to know how you stand out in the crowd. What makes you special, what makes you YOU. And, indeed, what qualities you have that will carry with you into your adult life. We believe you have some other strengths that we ALL can learn from.


     But, we’ve decided to think of them as superpowers, because we both know how important superpowers are to you, and to your brothers, and to your friends. And really, we want to talk about your superpowers because we think you should know what they are.


      1. The superpower of Golden-heartedness: Toby, I have always called you “my golden-hearted boy.” This, I think, is your greatest power. With it, you live in the world with almost-nonstop positivity. The words from the Torah that you put on your tallit, “Gimilut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness, is how you choose to live your life. You are cheerful and optimistic on the darkest days, the hardest moments. I can recall so many times your smile lit the room and made things easier for us and those around you. That is a gift, a superpower, to be certain. With your golden heart you see the best in people, you believe in them, you befriend them, and you enjoy them. You are tender with small children and loving with your elders. Toby, with your golden-hearted superpower you bring boundless amounts of good into the world. As far as we know, there’s no limit for this power. So, go out into the world and spread it around. The world really needs you.

      2. The superpower of Voice: Several years ago we took you to the doctor to get your hearing checked. Why? Not because you didn’t respond when we talked to you, no, but because you talked so LOUD all the TIME! We thought, maybe you had a hearing deficit. Well, you were checked and the doctor said, “Nope…he’s just the littlest brother trying to be heard above the din!” Well, today we’re here to tell you: It’s another of your SUPERPOWERS. With your voice you speak up for yourself when needed, to share your ideas or when you aren’t being heard…which is too often when you live in a family of talkers and jokers and opinionated speakers. You also speak up for yourself in situations that might not be so easy, like when you feel you are being wronged, or someone you care about is. With this superpower you look out for yourself and your friends, you get your needs met. A really good example of this is that since you were a young boy (a young superboy) you have never been shy to speak up and ask for what you need in any situation, at a restaurant, or a store, at home, or at a friend’s home. You might have been shorter than the counter at the store, but that didn’t stop you from going forward and asking for help. There are people in this world, Toby, who don’t feel they have a voice, or a right to speak up for what they need. You can use your superpower to help them, to heal the world, and to make a difference. This is an amazing superpower of yours.

     3. The superpower of Forgiveness: You forgive faster than anyone we know. Maybe it’s being the baby of the family. Maybe it’s just your nature. Or your superpower. But, your capacity for forgiveness means this: you don’t hang on to the bad stuff for long. You move on. You get over it. And in general have a very sunny view of the world. Forgiveness as a superpower puts you in league with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s what they preached. It’s what they lived by. That’s not to say, the hurts and harms don’t sometimes get you down, but you don’t stay down for long. You have already taught us what these two men did to make a difference on the planet, what will you do with this superpower?


     Before we close, we want to point out something else that comes with being a superhero, though we’re not sure if it is a superpower, per se. And this is, Always Wear A Costume! Superheroes know this. They’re all about their costumes. And you have always been all about your costume too. Hats, snuggies, ties, trenchcoats, you have quite an arsenal.  Since preschool, at your beloved Pastures, you have had definite ideas about what you wore, and chose outfits that were always uniquely you. We think it’s a definite sign…of superheroness.  But as you go on in life remember: no capes.

     What we really want to tell you is this: Take your superpowers out into the world with you. Bring your golden heart, your forgiving heart, and your voice wherever you go. Our family is oh so lucky to have you in it, the third beloved brother, the youngest son. The world is oh so lucky to have you in it.  The world is a better place because you are in it.  And we look forward to seeing you share your gifts with the world.

     We love you.  Always have, always will.