My son had a stroke as a baby. I just watched him become a man.

My greatest hope for my son Max's bar mitzvah: I wanted him to have both a fun and meaningful time.

I got my wish. Actually, I got more than my wish.

It was all so surreal. It didn’t feel like that long ago that Max had suffered a stroke that would lead to cerebral palsy. That he might not walk and might not talk. That he could have vision and hearing problems.


And here he was, my young man.

All photos by Ellen Seidman, used with permission.

Max owned the ceremony. We put it together ourselves, creating our own tradition.

He sang his songs and prayers beautifully, accompanied on guitar by a music teacher with whom he'd been practicing for eight months. He was especially gleeful about belting out "Thank You, God" — sung to the tune of "Fire Truck" — because he'd made up the words. ("I love the mitzvah of helping people, I want to be a fireman when I grow up!") The refrain of "Uri, Uri" had special meaning to me: "'Cause you've got the music in your soul, this world needs to hear your song."

When Max made his speech, first he used the speech app on his iPad to pronounce each sentence, and then he articulated the words. He noted that he is good at being Jewish and doing good; that he'd done a fire safety presentation at school for his mitzvah project; and that everyone should join him in eating sushi afterward.

Max had a gigantic smile on his face the entire time and giggled when people pumped their fists and said, "Woot! Woot!" — he had requested no clapping. He had everyone in the sanctuary laughing and crying; there is a reason we had 70 packets of tissues handy.

He had everyone in the sanctuary laughing and crying.

I only lost it a few times. Mostly, I was beaming, thrilled by his delivery and confidence. Boy, was he in control. Max told one of his cousins "Shhh!" when he heard her talking and directed his little sister, Sabrina, where to stand when she came up to sing a song with him. At the end, he gave the rabbi a hug. After stopping by a pew to give his teacher one, too, he booked out of there for cocktail hour.

Max made an ecstatic entrance into the party room wearing his Fireman Max hat as "Firework" played. He danced it up. He had asked to not be raised high on the chair during the hora, but when the predesignated Max Lifting Committee got him up there, he asked to go higher. Then he asked to do it again. Then he wanted Daddy to go up on a chair. Then me. Sabrina went up, too. Baby Ben: no.

Max welcomed special guests to light candles on his cake. He and the kiddie crowd played games with the DJ. He watched, in awe, the photo/video montage I’d made of his life and kept watching it again and again as it looped on the video screens. He ate a giant slice of birthday cake. He got pics taken in the photo booth. He danced some more, including our mom/son duet to "Just the Way You Are."

And when it was over, he requested another bar mitzvah. "This year!" he told me, hopefully.

Umm...

I wasn't just proud of my boy, I was all-out wowed by him. It was a day to celebrate Max becoming a young man but also a day to celebrate how far he has come.

My husband, Dave, and I did our best to capture the wonder that is Max in the speech we gave at the party.

Max held the mic for us the entire time.

Me: "My friend Wendy recently gave me a compliment; she said I always choose happiness and joy in life. Actually, that’s not completely true. Happiness was delivered to me and Dave, and his name is Max. From his first smile at two months old, Max has added cheer, exuberance, and joy to our lives and to basically everyone who comes into contact with him. To know him is to adore him."

Dave: "Behind that smile is a whole lot of strength, determination, and will. (Stubbornness, too, which explains why Max’s first word was 'No!') Max knows exactly what he wants, at all times. When we went on a joy trip last winter, Max chose the destination — Chicago. He watched videos on YouTube about Chicago, and when we were there, it was him telling me how to get around."

Me: "Max has shown us the way throughout his entire life. He has shown us what true perseverance is. He has shown us how to appreciate the inchstones along with the milestones. He has shown us the many meanings of 'ability.' He has shown us that it’s perfectly OK to be on your own timeline, proceeding at the pace that is right for you. He has shown us the beautiful range that is humanity. And, of course, he has shown us the way to the nearest fire station, wherever we go."

Max has shown us the way throughout his entire life. He has shown us what true perseverance is.

Dave: "We’re so glad you’re here to celebrate Max’s bar mitzvah. You’ve come from places near and far including Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Georgia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Maryland, Massachusetts, and that truly exotic locale, Brooklyn, New York. So many of you have played a role in Max’s life, whether directly with him or enabling me and Ellen to be the best parents possible to him."

Me: "My father, Zaydie, is here with us in spirit and likely wondering how good the food is — he loved a good meal. He was impressed by Max’s progress, and he would have been so proud of him today. At the beginning of Max’s life, we only hoped this day would come; eventually, we knew it. 'I can see the brightness in his eyes,' a doctor once told us. I know that today, you've seen it too."

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Wil Wheaton speaking to an audience at 2019 Wondercon.

In an era of debates over cancel culture and increased accountability for people with horrendous views and behaviors, the question of art vs. artist is a tricky one. When you find out an actor whose work you enjoy is blatantly racist and anti-semitic in real life, does that realization ruin every movie they've been a part of? What about an author who has expressed harmful opinions about a marginalized group? What about a smart, witty comedian who turns out to be a serial sexual assaulter? Where do you draw the line between a creator and their creation?

As someone with his feet in both worlds, actor Wil Wheaton weighed in on that question and offered a refreshingly reasonable perspective.

A reader who goes by @avinlander asked Wheaton on Tumblr:

"Question: I have more of an opinion question for you. When fans of things hear about misconduct happening on sets/behind-the-scenes are they allowed to still enjoy the thing? Or should it be boycotted completely? Example: I've been a major fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was a teenager and it was currently airing. I really nerded out on it and when I lost my Dad at age 16 'The Body' episode had me in such cathartic tears. Now we know about Joss Whedon. I haven't rewatched a single episode since his behavior came to light. As a fan, do I respectfully have to just box that away? Is it disrespectful of the actors that went through it to knowingly keep watching?"

And Wheaton offered this response, which he shared on Facebook:

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."