The Forever Letter by Elana Zaiman

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Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is.  Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful.  So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.

The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life.  Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper,  you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life.  Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter.   In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.

Elana has traveled around the country,  giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise.  How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die?  How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them?  Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years?  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects.  This must be done very thoughtfully.  And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.

Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son.  These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way.  She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties.  Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.

If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! –  this is a compelling book for you to read!

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Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

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So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books.  Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read.  This one, however, captured my attention.  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years.  In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B.  And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.

I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here.  I love her 3 P’s, most of all.  She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s:  Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.  That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault.  We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true.  That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything.  Most of the time, this, again, is not true.  And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever.  Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not.  These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.

I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points.  She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her.  But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well.  I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.

I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized.  We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!

The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen, MD with Amy Ellis Nutt

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A stark departure from my usual posts, this non-fiction book is the product of a neuroscience researcher who also survived as a single mom raising her own 2 sons through their adolescent years.  It is written for parents – not just for those of us who work with adolescents – so while it is somewhat technical, it also is quite readable.  While the authors describe many studies about how the brain functions and how adolescent brains function uniquely, they also pepper the chapters with anecdotes about specific individuals who illustrate their points.  The stories are quite poignant and really keep the reader engaged.

What I like about this book is that it is not all negative and bad news.  Adolescents often get slammed when written about, with emphasis only on the risky behaviors and the poor decision-making that they are capable of.  While there is some of that here, there is also explanation for why they are vulnerable to unwise decisions – their still developing frontal cortices, primarily.  In addition, there is also very positive discussion about the plasticity of their brains, which enables them to learn much more easily and quickly than those of us who are older.  There is interesting discussion about why adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction, whether to smoking or drugs or gambling, etc., and there is also discussion of mental illness and legal issues.  Finally, there is also discussion of the emerging adult, or the post-adolescent, which is a newer area of investigation.

In this text, you’ll find reasoned parenting advice, strategies to help teens cope with difficulties, and resources, which any parent of a teen can benefit from.  This book is not for everyone, but if you are a parent of teens and have questions or issues, I would recommend this as a resource.  Also, if you work with teens in any capacity, this is a must-read.   Check it out!