Directions

Ingredients

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

In this episode

You know today's guests from dozens of roles in television and movies, starting as one of Will Smith's crushes in the iconic “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to her most recent role as Elise Torres in Netflix's, in our opinion, hilarious and endearing comedy, “Never Have I Ever.” 

Along the way, she lived her best life working as an actress in Hollywood, falling in love with and marrying Saro Gullo, a Sicilian chef coping with his later cancer diagnosis, adopting a daughter, and then eventually caring for Saro and their daughter as he passed away in 2012. 

Her journey then turned toward understanding and living through grief. The lessons of which she turned into a 2019 memoir called From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Hope. The book has been adapted into a series by Netflix produced by Reese Witherspoon, coming out next year.

We met Tembi way back when she started doing work around grief and caregiving after her husband passed away. Our work with childhood cancer families and MaxLove Project provided a lot for us to connect over. And now, all these years later, we get to connect over growing through grief, finding resilience in the face of tragedy and planting roots and choosing love no matter what life throws our way. 

Tembi is an absolute light and joy, and we know you're going to love this conversation as much as we do. Settle in for the truly amazing, so funny, and really insightful Tembi Locke.

Listen here

Show notes

Transcript highlights


2:34

Audra: Ok, so Justin makes the questions, and I mess it all up with conversation, so…

Tembi: I love it. 

Justin: Yes. It is a great dynamic. I try to keep the train on the tracks.

Audra: I try to derail us constantly. 

Justin: Visit all the small towns off the road, which is a great, yeah, it's a great mix. 

Audra: But I want to talk about From Scratch. I really want to. I know it's not what we're starting with here in our questions, but I feel so honored that you let us in on social media. You let all of us in on your journey. It feels so big to me. It feels so beautiful on so many levels because you have been so kind from the beginning of Max's diagnosis, really to welcome me into discussions of grief, to welcome me into your story, to you have helped me dig deeper into my journey and not just understand a search for a cure or not, you know, in a more dynamic view. 

Your book is gorgeous. It takes us through such a powerful life journey. Plus, I mean, you immerse us, right? And now you're bringing this to life in a show. Can you tell us about this process for you?

Tembi: First of all, everything you said, for whatever reason, in the way you lined up, I found myself getting super emotional just listening to it because I have been so in it and in the writing and then the sharing and then the adapting and then the filming, and I don't sometimes slow down to sort of, I'm not able to have that 30,000-foot view of the experience. I'm just sort of in it. And so every now and then when I take a breath and listen and like you, just that was a gift. Thank you for that share because it just made me sort of drop in and realize I have been doing that. 

Like, I have been intentionally, it sounds absurd because I wrote a book, but I have been intentionally sharing. But I have, and you know, it's been a ride. Unlike any other, it has expanded. You're talking about expanding. I have expanded far beyond my known capacity. Like I, I thought, I have capacity. Ok, I'm a person who, you know, if you take 10 people, probably out of the 10, on average I'm in, the two of us have got like a lot of capacity... It’s taught me that I've got capacity. 

And so, you know, it's been a beautiful experience, it's been a loving experience, it's been a hard experience, and in many ways at times it's mirrored my grief. But it's also mirrored, it's also spawned growth. Like the two things are always side by side. They just always sitting right next to each other. 

Audra: What's coming up for me is like hearing about the process for you of really bringing your book to screen and at the same time, I'm starting to think your sister is involved in this. And did she experience your grief differently? 

I'm going to cry thinking about this, like your daughter experiences differently? Like, it seems really big to me to bring not only the book to the world but then to bring this into the form that you're bringing it into now. So, yeah, keep exploring. 

Tembi: Well, I will say, listen, the writing and I could talk. I love talking about writing, and I wish I could say I was, you know, I've written one book, but I've been writing my whole life. So in a way not knowing, not with any professional intention or goal. It was just, for my own edification, growth, sorting through, like all the mental chatter and those doing that even as early as 14, you know, when I was like 14 and hating on my parents, I would like...to some degree, all of that was me trying to process my world and my lived experience. I've been doing that since I was really young, but it was only in my 40s and after a large life experience, being a parent and married and a caregiver and then widowed that I was like, “Wait a minute, I actually want to sort of not only document but sort of craft this life that I've had, like for myself.”

You know, writing is often making sense of a lived experience, especially with memoir, right? Memoir is literally about making sense and giving a kind of narrative to big life experiences. So that's what I was doing, you know, and I felt it was worthy of sharing because I knew that elements of my story were so universal. Like, I am clearly not the only one. 

But the things that made it kind of magical for me were that many people don't have all those things at one time, like, you know what I mean? I had this experience of a decade of full-tilt living, like full tilt everything. It was like motherhood and cancer and adoption and acting and two languages and food and college. I was like, “Whoa,” and I was like, “Oh, that's my soup,” right? And my fear when I started to write it was that no one would get it. It was like, it's too many things, it's too many things, it's not like, “Oh, she met a chef and she married him and that was great.” That's a story people can wrap their noggin around, right? 

But oh, wait, no, there's cancer. “Oh, oh, they're two cultures, Ok? Yeah, this is complicating it even more.” And then it just kind of went on and on. 

That's the energy that I brought to bare when I sat down to say, “Let me try to see if I can craft a narrative, a book, not just a single essay, but like a book from this.” And I said, Let me, having never done this before, let me just write the best book I can write for right now. I'm a first-time writer and we just write the best book I can write right now. And then I set my life up in such a way to kind of give myself the best shot at that. I kind of had to pare some things back to make space because I knew I was taking on a big endeavor. It was a very personal endeavor. 

And often when I was writing the book, I would have fights with my book, like, why did I ever think I could do this? Like, I don't understand where this is going. I'm like, one minute, I'm talking about being at a bar in Florence and like listening to David Bowie. And then the next minute, I'm making lentil soup, and then I'm suddenly in East Texas... Like, what is this thing I'm trying to write and it vexed me? Right. 

So you said, like this year, trying to wrap your heart and mind and you know the things you know about craft around all these words and events and memories and make history together. And so I got to a place where I thought, “Ok, you've done that. I succeeded.” 

It goes out into the world and shakin’ in my boots as it goes out into the world, because now it's not just me. I wrote the book, the room I’m in right now is where I pretty much wrote the book, here in my bedroom, in my car when my daughter was like, you know, at volleyball practice or, you know, whatever. I wrote the book on airplanes. I kind of like whenever the book wanted to come out, I was just, I made myself ready and available to receive it, you know, and to shape it. And it was very personal, very intimate, and I didn't talk about it with anybody. You know, I maybe told five people I was writing a book. You don’t go around being like, “Hey, I'm writing a book.” Well, you know, you just kind of get into it. One: because I thought, if I fall flat on my face, I don't want the whole world to know about it. And I have to be accountable to this. It's a personal endeavor. 

And then it did the thing that it did in the world, which it got picked up by Reese Witherspoon, Reese's Book Club and suddenly this very personal, intimate, private experience is now very, very public. People often think, well, that should be fine for you because you have a career as an actor and you're used to being in front of people. But those are someone else's words. That's someone else's story. I'm just sort of the, you know, the creative vessel and character who is bringing it to life. 

But suddenly, I was being asked to sort of speak now about my book, kind of, you know, the way I am now and from there Netflix came along and, you know, Netflix came along and now it's being made into a series and I'm adapting it with my sister. 

And so your question, my long way around is that what was a personal individual experience became very much a family experience again, in a different way because my sister and I adapted the book. She was right beside me through 80-90% of the lived experiences that I talk about in the book. And so for us to put our heads together as creative people, but also as the people who, you know, lived the events and adapt it, brought up a lot again. 

And I think we both have had to take care of ourselves through this process because in order to share about something and in order to write it or to recraft it, you have to travel back into it. And so it's been lovely to travel back into it with my sister because I'm doing it with a partner who I implicitly trust. We have the same sort of creative sort of sensibilities and language and approach, but we also have had to be very intentional about how we care for each other through the process.

Audra: I can just imagine and just feeling into this, I'm wondering what that self-care has looked like for you, if that surprised you, that facet of it. And I'm wondering if anything else surprised you? If it surprised you that this story really coming into the world, which is something that it sounds like it was not fully expected, if your feelings that came out from that also surprised you. 

Tembi: Yeah, it's been a mosaic of feelings. It has been everything from pure. I mean, every day I literally wake up like in this immense state of wonder, gratitude, and quasi disbelief. I'm like, “Wait, how did I get here?” And then I go open, I'm here, open, I'm here. And oh, what wonder is this? And from that place, I go forth and say—well, when I wrote the book, I said, “Let me write the best book I am capable of writing.” With adapting it for series for Netflix it's been a similar process. It's like, let us make the best series we're capable of making right now, for what we think the world needs right now. 

The fact that we began the writers’ room in 2019, the Fall of 2019, and I think you can see where I'm going with this right. We're in the writers’ room and we were about to break episode, there's eight episodes. Initially, there were going to be 10, but we were about to break, I think the second to the final episode and we got that call that said, “Everybody go home. We're done.” And we kept writing for a while as a team until we sort of had all the episodes laid out. 

And then everything went quiet as it all, as the world went quiet. And then Netflix returned to us and said, “We're ready to make the show.” So we've made the show. We've written the show, in the pandemic, and now we've produced and filmed it in the pandemic, so the self-care is happening on a couple of levels. There's the personal care of like, okay, we're the people who lived with this. We're being to some degree, not to some degree, off to a large degree entering back into those spaces. And when you write it on the page, it's one thing, but when you see it on set and you're like, wait, oh, in the 3D, this is it. This is what I lived.  But now there are other people playing the parts and you know, and so my sister and I would often turn to each other and just go, “Holy cow, what is happening?” And it has been truly beautiful and humbling. 

And every day we say, well, we've been given the privilege of this moment, of this opportunity. What can we do with it and how can we help to serve the world? And I know that feels like a big and lofty expanse, but I don't think you can write a show about love, grief, death, dying, and family and then produce it in the pandemic without asking yourself how can I serve the world right now? You know this isn't like a “Hey, let's tell the story to be just as fun.” No, it's like, “Let's share this story because.” 

And we really crafted the series without intentionality. I mean, when you pull, we had seven writers in the writers’ room together, and we're all bringing our lived experiences to it. When you adapt a story, when you adapt a book, fiction or nonfiction, it has to live in a different medium. So things are going to change. It's going to be fictionalized in places. But certainly, when you bring a team of other humans in, each person is adding their story into the story. 

So we had people in the writers’ room who had lived, who had been caregivers, who had walked people up to their final days. We had people who had great culinary experiences in their background, people who studied in Italy, people who, you know, knew about adoption and immigrants. So like everybody's plugging into it, it becomes this collective human story that has the essence and sort of given circumstances of my story like it kind of, it stays true to the given circumstance. But then it's really everybody's story.

Audra: So powerfully shared. And you answered the next question that I had, you know, kind of I had this sense of what we could all hope to potentially experience or see from this story and I was wondering what your perspective on that of like how this would land for folks, you know, like what the hopes would be with that, but with the shared collective story that there are so many facets we can all identify with.

Tembi: That's the thing that is my prayer and wish for the series as we continue to sort of we're in the editing phase now. And as it when it lands on Netflix and I don't know what the date will be, but it'll be, you know, next year sometime that viewers will be, some part of it, will speak to them and ask them if they walk away from the series, asking themselves “What more love could I seed in the world?” 

Audra: I think we want to put a pin in that, put a pin in that quote. That is absolutely incredible. And that hits me really hard, that it's something that like coming from the childhood cancer journey, all of the work that we do, what we've shared, you know, I think we share in these hopes of what we share with the world. It's a powerful mission. 

Justin: What I love about this entire discussion here is everything you've hit on goes back to something you said at the beginning was that when you started to write this book, you were feeling into the universality of so many of your experiences. And I mean, really, you described how there was so much going into this book because so much has happened in your life, but at each point, it's so universal. I mean, so I've really identified with this childhood of a kind of uprootedness in your childhood and then the writing and your story really feels like a project of growing roots, of becoming rooted. And so I'm wondering if you can say more about this because this really came through so clear in your childhood. 

Tembi: Oh my gosh, Justin, thank you so much for that, because, you know, initially when I was sort of thinking about the book and I knew Sicily would be this character in the book, I knew that this place that I returned to each summer, those summers, especially the first, the book takes place, the first three summers after Saro passed when I go, but I continue to go. I kept asking myself, “What is that return about? Like, why is this place so important?” Yes, my mother-in-law is there, yes, I bring my daughter to be with her grandmother. Yes. It reminds me of my husband. Yes, the food is good. And yes, the Mediterranean Sea and all of those yes’s.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. 

Tembi: Yeah. Well, what about it for Tembi, like deep, deep, deep down inside. And the first thought I had was that grief is very dislocating. It's dislocating in time and space. I think, for me that is my, and I don't think it's an uncommon experience of grief. You know, my own home didn't feel like my own home anymore. My everything felt both the same and completely different, and it was very disorienting and dislocating. 

And so having a place to go to where I could just be an anchor myself, literally grounded me. And so I said, ok, I get that from the grief perspective, why Sicily is the grounding place to sort of anchor myself. But then I thought, what and it was really the point in the book when my mother in law gifted me land there, and I really spent a lot of time in the writing of the book trying to unpack why that touched me the way it did. At first, I was just like, it's a great gift, but no, it really hit me in a primal way. 

And I realized that there was this young part of me from early childhood. That child of divorce. Lots of moving around. Different family makeups, that had been looking for a kind and quality of home that was consistent, that was ever-present, that was unconditional and unwavering. And I didn't have an unhappy childhood. I had a childhood, not unlike many people, especially American children, you know? Other parts of the world, people who might, you know, live in the same place with the same nuclear family. I had, you know, I had my own experience and something about when I was writing the book and I connected those two, when I realized that receiving the gift of the land was so meaningful because I was someone who had longed for a kind of home.

 I started asking my other questions about what does it mean to have a home? And I realized I'd been looking for a home in my relationships. I had been looking for a home in so many places my whole life. And I realized, let me lean into that and sort of weave that through the book. At first, I thought, nobody's going to get that because it feels too esoteric. But I thought I'm going to try to make that connective tissue because I feel like there's a part of us that always wants to be seen, heard, and witnessed for our experience. 

And for me, as a grieved, newly grieving mother and widow, I wanted to be seen and witnessed for that experience, for having been a caregiver. And now that whole part of my identity is gone. I didn't know what to do with myself because I didn't have that to charge me each day. And so being in Sicily, being at my mother-in-law’s table, talking to her, which I write about a lot in the book, she was seeing me for all of those life experiences. And in our conversations, she sensed this person needs an anchor. She just needs an anchor in the world. 

And I think that that gesture, because I can't say it's not some big palatial like, you know, plot of land, and it's certainly not like, you know, “Under the Tuscan Sun” with like a gorgeous villa on rolling hills and, you know, cypress trees and groves and groves and groves of olive trees. None of that, right? It's a sloping plot of land, but it was the symbol of it and also the gift of it that rooted me. And I think we all need to be rooted.

Audra: That is so beautiful.

Justin: I keep coming back to the childhood portion of your book because I really resonate with this. And then when you said when you were 14 and writing in your journal like, oh man, you know. 

So, you know, there's so much universal there. And then as you grow up, as you come into the world, you start to and then you just described choosing your family like there's a biological family. And then there is the family that you choose. I want to know more about this process for you or your family of choice. You know, how you've brought this into your life up to the present day. 

Tembi: You know, if you'd asked me 10, 15, 20 years ago, like I didn't even have language for it. I just, whoever I could be my most authentic self with, I was like, I claim you, I'm not letting you go. I'm with you. You are my peeps. Like, from here to eternity, you are my peeps.

Like, if I feel that I can trust you, be witnessed, be seen, and be authentic with you in all my goofiness, in my expansion, in my dreams, and my sorrows, then I think we're a tribe. Let's call each other a tribe, you know? 

And so I have this sort of family of friends and of course, with Saro, one of the things about marrying someone of a different culture and we, you know, not of a shared mother tongue, is that we do have to really choose each other with a great deal of intentionality because you can't rely on like, “Oh my god, we grew up listening to the same music,” or like, “Oh yeah...we had none of the same shared stuff.” Like, I was like, what? Who are you playing music? What is that? That sounds insane. I hate it. You know, but we find these ways, so I guess I began to sort of have a practice. 

A felt sense that, “Oh, I can be myself with you,” and I feel like that's the best sort of to me, litmus test for who you choose to keep in your life, who you invite in and who you choose to pull into your inner circle. And by the way, those people don't have to look like you come from the same culture you did. They don't even have to speak the same language. It's like, that's the one thing about my life that I didn't know that many years ago, but I can unequivocally say that now, that I did…

Justin: When did you discover that?

Tembi: You know, I think I've discovered it along the way. I will say one of the things when it really became crystal clear and conscious for me was, again, in Sicily. There's someone in Sicily who—I will not say their name—they live in the town and we see each other once a year. My Sicilian is very bad. My Italian is decent, it used to be better. But as years go by without someone to practice to, it's like I have to like, you know, I click into it when I get there. 

But we don't like a lot of, and she speaks no English. And yet when we get together, we have the best time. And what I mean by that is we each can go to like we can just drop into our most authentic selves. I realize, like, “How do I carry on a relationship?” And I call it a relationship. We like WhatsApp a couple of times during the year, the intervening year, Christmas and Easter, and then I see her in the summer. It's one of the relationships I really value in my life, and I look forward to our connections. 

So I thought to myself, “Oh, this is that example of choosing family.” And you know, and maybe also just into your question about the childhood I always went to, because I changed schools so often I was thrown in with lots of different types of people and lots of different classes. You know, middle class, the rich, all of it, people who were the working poor, then different races, everything in my own family, they're sort of that hybrid of folks. 

And so I feel like I never was someone who could spend my life relying on, “Oh, we all have to come from those that had a similar set of circumstances in order to be each other.” And I also understood that sometimes I was closer with people who were not like me, that I work with people who are my own biological genetic family. So right there, that also to me, doesn't kind of matter. It doesn't matter.

Audra: Did it teach you or show you to trust something in yourself around energetic connection? It sounds like with this woman in Sicily, there is a deep, energetic right. It's beyond words. Did your childhood teach you how to tap into that? 

Tembi: I think it did. I think it did. It's funny in the way, you know, as I did it now and think about it, I do think there was that part of my young, very young self who was seeking a place to be all of who I was. And so I was the kid, very early on, I was like the only girl who would play with all the boys on the block and all the other girls were like, “Why are you doing that? You're not supposed to play with the boys.” And I was like, “They are more fun. Like that’s who I'm going to play with.” 

Audra: I can identify what that. 

Tembi: They want to play pirates and I want to be a pirate. As long as I could be the captain of the ship, I will be there, you know? Yeah, I was very much that kind of little kid. And so I do feel as though being all of who you are feels so good, that I kept seeking out that feeling. 

And I think I've just been seeking that feeling over and over again because some part of me understood that I could be more of who I was, I had more fun, I was more capacious in the world when I could just be me. 

And sometimes that just wasn't the people who were maybe, you know, my first cousins or in my family. It was like other people. And now I was like, “Oh, those people can be family as well.” 

Justin: So staying on this line or this idea around your authentic self, was there a shift or a transition when you became a mother? Was that you felt something happen with the core? 

Tembi: Totally. Because then I mean, one of the things about motherhood that happens is suddenly your heart is like going along and you're like, “I am a loving full person in this world and that feels great.” And suddenly you have a child and you are like, “Holy moly, I have so much love, it's like bursting from me and I don't know what to do.” And it's like I’m scared, like, what happens if I break the person like you? 

Suddenly, the stakes change for me. I became a mother through adoption, that kind of intentionality of saying, you little person that we get to spend our lives together. What a joyous gift that is. And now I have the privilege and honor of caring for your little heart. And that, for me, was a lot about wanting to, and I think this is very common for most parents is that we want to give our children the things that we didn't have. 

And I don't mean things as in objects, but I mean experiences and, we want to heal parts of ourselves that were a little bit broken and didn't quite fit and all those things, right? And so you sort of, this child comes into your life and suddenly you want to down with all of these things that you didn't get. And then you realize, “Oh, wait, they're on their own path and they're going to teach me as much as I might and I hope to teach them.” I always say what I hope to teach her. You know, how I hope to guide her. 

Justin: Tembi, was there an aha moment where you're like, “Oh, this person is not me, like they've got their own path?”

Tembi: Well, you know, one of the things I will say for sure about, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, but coming to parenthood through adoption, I was always clear about the fact that this child is a human that I get to share my life with. But she is not a replica of me. She did not literally come through this vessel, but we are in a joint, beautiful dance together and the best I can do is to honor the soul and individuality for who she is. 

Knowing that there are whole parts of who she is that will, it sounds strange to say, remain invisible to me. And what I mean by that is to say when you get older, like my child is a teen now, and clearly, I know now there are many parts of her life that will always remain invisible to me. It’s literally set up that way for a reason. That's not a bad thing. B

ut I also think there was some part of me, you know, my mom still calls me that she's like, I don't know what's going on in your life, and I'm thinking to myself, “Mhhhmmmm.” 

I say that to say that, as I was aware of that even as she was an infant. I didn't have the, you know, often I think when you can look at your child and you see your eyes or you see your genetic code or you see your genetic imprint, there's this way that you kind of come to it seeing yourself. You know, I came to it seeing someone whose life was taken to discover and bloom in front of me. And that's a different experience. 

Audra: Yeah, it's also a mirage. And so I think that it's so powerful to hear of this from you because I feel like it's so much of our work as parents and that you entered into this relationship. This beautiful, loving motherhood relationship with this understanding is so powerful because for many of us, it's our work to do to kind of pull apart that veil and see that I've got to manage it, manage myself. 

Like you said, every single bit of healing and all of the things that I want to do through my child is my work to do and not through my child, right? Like I've gotta face it.

And it can be hard to see. It can be really hard to see through that. I think it's powerful to hear. And it sounds like to me, one thing that really strikes me is that you're such a courageous person, who strikes me as a cycle-breaker. 

Starting with your drive into your authenticity as a child and knowing you, as I've known you as somebody who has wanted to, it seems to me break the cycle of not talking about grief, of not talking about bereavement, of keeping these things in ourselves and keeping in silence. So I'd love to hear more about that and how maybe it even translates into your motherhood. But that feels like a theme to me that you've had the courage to say “There are a number of things that we're going to talk about and that need to be talked about in this world.” So I'd love to know more about this experience of grief and motherhood with your daughter and how you are bringing things to light.

Tembi: I can see that about myself now. I didn't. And in some ways, it's a lesson or an awareness that I've come to later in life. I never would have called myself like a challenger or a rabble-rouser or like, you know, get in there and mix it. But I think I quietly my whole life been poking at the bear kind of like food that makes sense to me. 

But I think you're right to me and often through my art and through my creativity because I think it was a space that I felt permission to play and to sort of push boundaries in. After Saro passed, the first thing I did before the book was create The Kitchen Widow. And that was it's a website that was really dedicated to caregiving and specifically families going through caregiving and grief.

 And that really was an outgrowth of me trying to find a way to bring my whole self as a newly widowed and a grieving mom to an act of service and had all of those things be an act of service. And I've always come to things from the service model, but that has really come from my grandparents, my grandparents top-down both sides, people of service in their community, right. Didn't talk about it and didn't walk around with the banner, you know, just quietly getting shit done. Excuse my French. Just out there serving, a very powerful model to witness growing up.

I think in some ways I saw the way you could affect change in the world, make a meaningful difference, gift people a kind of love simply by shifting things. And so one story I have is my grandmother. My mother's mom in East Texas was the kind of woman who often said to me, “If you see a need, fill it.” I've never forgotten that and I tried to this day to still live by that. And so to a large degree, the ways that my bravery, my courageousness has simply come out of “Well, what do I have the capacity to do right now? How might I serve this situation?” And you know, it's from that place that I take risks, you know, and often in service of love or anything else. And it's one of the things I'm learning now is to also do that in service to myself, my own care, my own family.


40:26

Tembi: When I first started writing, when I was taking classes at UCLA, I actually tried to write an essay about how with acting, it taught me about caregiving. And clearly, I did not do well in writing because nobody got what I was trying to say. But what I was essentially beginning to was this very idea; is that career, that showing up day after day, giving it your best, all the time, my integrity around my work and my artistry and that craftsmanship—I would not sacrifice that. I wouldn't do it half-assed. I had to be all in. But with the knowledge that I could be all-in, but it still might not be for me. It may not be my part and my time will come. 

And there's a kind of trust that you have to live with and that that helped me as a caregiver because it, well, we got to show up. We got to try all the things. We had to give it our friggin best. We got a turnover stone. We're going to really be fully open about it. We don't know. We just don't know. We don't know if this thing is going to work. We don't know how you're going to feel on this. 

We don't know if we make that plan to go on this trip that you'll be able to do it. But we're not going to not try. We're not going to not give our best and that mindset I got from being an actor. And so you call it resilience, and it was resilience.

Justin: And the parallels to parenthood of like, you could put yourself in it and your child is going to throw that food on the floor or they're going to refuse to do this or, you know, and then yet you come back day after day and you keep doing it. 

Tembi: Someone told me at—ah, I don’t know if you know, Soaring Spirits is an organization that serves the widowed people internationally, but also their families. And she said to me, the founder whose name is Michelle, she's actually up for a CNN Hero award. So yay, Michelle. But she told me, we were talking and she said, you know, with my daughter after her, she was newly remarried and she said her daughter was a teen and she was just pushing back and pushing back and pushing back. And she said the role is to put, they're going to slam the door. And what we have to do is just put our foot with our foot between the door and the door jam. 

You know, it's just, you just keep raising your foot in there over and over again, like, you're just not going to set it all the way. And that's kind of it. Like, that's a metaphor for love and showing up and saying, you know what, I'm never going to let the door fully shut. Like, I'll wedge my foot in there. I'll do it, you know, I'll be crippled and hurting but I’ll try!

Audra: I think this is so powerful because to me, it does speak to showing up and we're so outcomes based in our society that it's a really powerful testament to really, really showing up without that outcome or end in mind.

Tembi: Because we don't know. If you told me literally when they went, what was it for us, it was March 14, 2020, whenever they said, “Ok, go home. Oh yeah, this will be for two weeks.” Convinced, convinced it's going to be two weeks. I mean, literally, you couldn't wait that, you couldn’t move them off or that they just knew two weeks. 

So let me just say, we're all here to say we don't know jack, and you don't. Well, what we do know, the one thing we do know that I can say I know for sure, to quote Oprah, what I know for sure is that: how we show up and how we meet those moments in our lives make up the kind of quality of life we have, the kind of relationships we have and that's really the thing that we have say, that we have agency over.

I don't have agency over the weather, what my kid is going to do a week from now, where my career is, I don't have. What I have agency over is how I'm going to show up each day. And for me, that comes back to I find I work best when I come to the table with my most humble, grateful, and loving self. And by the way, that is a practice I have come to. 

So when I'm grumpy, stuff isn’t going the way I want it to go, I'm irritated, I'm exhausted. The prayer, the wish, the desire, label it whatever you want, for me is let me bring my most humble, grateful, and loving self to this. Because sometimes, like my personality is keyed up and I'm irritated and friggin don't want to deal with something or this is a challenge, or it's asking more of me than I'm capable of or I'm insecure about it, or I just don't know. So then when I feel that I just say, “Ok, what is my most grateful, loving, and humble response to this moment?” And from that, I don't know what it will look like, but it'll be better than if I didn’t.

Audra: Yeah, so you take a pause, you take a pause and you ask yourself that grounding question. And to me, that reminds me of one of my favorites, I feel like a lighthouse for me, has been the work of Viktor Frankl, A Man's Search for Meaning. And that concept that our last enduring freedom is our freedom to choose how we respond to any point of stimulus. That's what I'm hearing from you. And the power of it, the power of being and why is it in this society we are taught that if you don't have an immediate come back response that you get in the water? 

Tembi: You know what, because that is an emotionally immature cultural response to the human experience. Because the reality is, no, we can't. And it's funny, you know, I talk a lot, going back to the book, you know, my mother-in-law who has been one of my great teachers about just life. 

And one of the things you know, she often said was, I'd be like, “Ok, well…” as simple as “I'm going to go get bread” and” I'll get some cheese and I'll be back at this time.” And she will literally respond to me “if God wants.” And I’d be like oh my God, this is such Sicilian pathos here. What the hell. If God wants? Like, no, I’m just going to get the bread, and the cheese and the olives.

Audra: I'm pretty sure. And she's like, “If God wants.” 

Tembi: So unpacking that, at the core of that message is, “Honey. We don't know, you could walk out that door and we don't know.” And it's baked into the cultural language. It breaks into how people perceive the world now. Some people call that fatalism. Some people, I mean, there are many words, and by the way, it can skew into that, but at its core is a sense that we don't know what the next moment might bring.

And so actually, if it's, you know, there's a kind of divine or unspoken or unseen, you know, guiding force that is at play here that we don't have complete human dominion over. So go get the bread and cheese and olives. Hope to see you back. But it's a good reminder. You know, it's such a good reminder to like, hold it lightly, and be grateful.

Audra: It's powerful. It's a powerful reminder. And I wonder if your grief, the grief you carry this season in your life has in many ways or in some ways given you, I mean, you've walked, I can only imagine that significant not only pain and discomfort, but really having to rest with and sit in that space of the unknowns from moment to moment. And I think of you deeply with that, and it makes me think when you talk about giving birth to the show through COVID, how you came into COVID with a whole different understanding of the world and of this project of living from this perspective.

Tembi: Totally. And I mean, Audra, I'm sure you as well. I mean, any of us who walked the path of lifelong, life-threatening illness, who have lived at the frontlines of caregiving, who have interface with medical systems and hospital systems, and have tried to navigate mysterious symptoms, unknown outcomes. Like if you've lived that and that is your day-to-day. 

When COVID came along, I was like, “Oh, the rest of the world is just, it's like my experience is now global.” 

And by the way, the scale of that is actually too much for the human heart to hold. I mean, it's hard enough to hold it in an individual life. You know, I think it's why people are often, you know, hospital-phobic. I had friends with that when Saro was ill who were like, “I would love to come. I just can't come into the hospital. I just can't come visit because I can't walk into the hospital.” 

My first response was, “Oh my God, get over yourself, just come visit.” But ultimately, you know, what I've come to understand from a more empathetic place now is that, oh, what that really is, sure, the deeper fears about life, death, the unknown, the what it triggers in people. So when we were all living through COVID. It was like that spread across the globe. Like that was the energy of that was so intense. We were never meant to experience that on a global scale. 

Audra: And to be aware of the global scale, right?

Tembi: And to be aware of it. I mean, it was beyond. And so for those of us who I was both being retriggered by my own personal experiences, like over and over again, my old fears of like, Oh my gosh, what happens if we're going to? But then watching it said it was a great deal. So then to be still in the middle of all of that, masked, you know, with all the COVID tests, every and then I try to take a troop of 200 people into production every day for 12-14 hours a day and make a TV show. Was no small thing, no small thing. 

And the ways in which the subject matter of what we were filming and what story we're seeking to tell touched every individual crew member on that set. So it wasn't just the story that was playing out on screen with the actors, with the costumes and wardrobe and the given circumstance. But there were people who were our prop masters, who were our wardrobe designers, who were hairstylists who were lighting people. 

Everybody's had a life. Everybody knows someone. Everybody has a mom or brother, sister, a child, an uncle, a friend who has walked a path. And so suddenly being on set would bring that up. 

And so I was as the creator and as a producer and as the writer sort of aware of both the ways in which my own stuff was coming out, but also the ways in which we're having to wrap our hearts and minds around the whole troop of people now because we're all in this big human experience together. And some days it was like, let's just send love and light to everybody here on the set because we are trying to do something really brave right now in unprecedented circumstances.

Audra: That will only radiate from there. And I'm thinking put that on the world stage where I feel the fear, distrust of the government, the political aspects of it, the vitriol against the health care system and vaccines and change and all of that. What I'm seeing in that is grief, unacknowledged grief, pain, fear.

Tembi: Completely. I have been saying for years and I think we ought we talk about it now. By the way, I don't claim it as my own original idea, but it was something that an idea I came across very early in my grief, specifically in communities who lacked access to proper grief counseling services were able to take off after that, I had the privilege of time after Saro passed to care for myself. That is a privilege and a gift. 

Most people do not have that and particularly in certain underserved communities, and that unexpressed grief becomes a medical crisis. It shows up as diabetes. It shows up as anxiety. It shows up as depression. And so that unexpressed grief has many faces and in this a public health crisis. It is a public health crisis. When I see the enraged person doing whatever out in the world, supermarket, road, you know, wherever I'm like, “Um, there's some stuff going on underneath all of that.”

Audra: Trauma trigger, right? Whatever, whatever that might be. Right. Unaddressed, unacknowledged, unseen, unheard.

Tembi: Unheard, unseen. And by the way, because there were days you and I, you know, I touch on this a little bit in the book. Early on in my grief, I felt like an insane person. I felt so untethered. So literally every particle of my physical form was like floating outside of me. It felt so strange to be alive in the world when I was in so much pain, and the person who was my person was no longer here. 

If that made me feel so quote-unquote crazy, if you will, or outside of myself and I have the resource of time. I had therapy. I went to grief counseling. I had close family and friends. I had people leaving soup on my door every day. I had a career that could wait for me. I had the privilege of all of that and I still felt as unmoored as I did. 

Imagine the human, imagine the person, which is the majority of our society who does not have that level of care. So the one thing the pandemic has taught us is it allowed us to give it a space and public conversations about this. You know, when we were talking about this five, six years ago, we were like, over in a corner. You know, just talking about it, like trying to go, “Hey world. Pay attention to this thing because it's kind of like in the human experience and we all need to be dealing with it.” 

And when the pandemic hit, I think we all were able to acknowledge that in a new and deeper way, and the question remains for us as a society and as a globe, will we keep the conversation going? Will we enact change that makes the path easier? 

You said something so wise to me many years ago, and I've never forgotten it. You said, “We, with the work of MaxLove, the idea is that we want to make the path easier for the people who come behind us.” I mean those are not your exact words, but the sentiment. That's what I heard and that has always stayed with me, always stayed with me. 

And so my question to all of us as a society across the globe is, will we make it easier for the generations who are going to come behind us? Or will we sit deaf, mute, blind, you know, dumb to our present reality, continue the status quo and not really change things. And that can seem so big and seems so large and it is. But it’s also super micro. You can do it on a daily basis in your own life and in your own community. It has exponential things that there is nothing. 

The pandemic taught us that too because I will tell you, you know, to get political for five seconds. What I saw was not far from my home, a block away, people taking to the streets and mass protests for things that did not feel right to them anymore. And so whereas before people have been dormant and willing to sort of go along to get along, willing to not really plugin or turn a cheek or turn a deaf ear to the outcries of their fellow citizens, suddenly they couldn't. And so we know that and that happened with micro-changes with a big catalyst, big catalyst. 

The catalyst of not just the pandemic, but violence enacted by the people who are tasked to protect us. But we saw what happens when we do really, really, really stand up at the individual level. And so I say, will we continue to do that around this conversation, basic health care, and mental services for those folks, when we are grieving. 

No one is going to get to this life without losing someone. You just won't. You will at some point. I saw my own health decline and change, meaning I was more anxious. Nutrition was really hard for me. You know, I was in and out of life. I just, I couldn't sleep. All of those things have a net effect on your health. So they become a public health crisis, not just a mental health crisis, but actually, you know, a public health crisis.

Audra: It's, I think, a perfect way to kind of close this out for at least today. It really speaks to how as we start to show up, as we start to break the cycles and seek change in our own lives, which starts with our work. And it starts with how we show up in the world and show up with those immediately around us and then into our community. We become paradigm shifters. Our communities really start to make change, and I can't agree with you more that this is a part of the COVID, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, our response to injustice and inequity where I was raised in a time of silence. I was raised in a time when people said, This isn't our business and we're coming to learn, this is our business. This is all of our business.

Tembi: It’s all of our business. Every day we are out here co-creating the world we deem acceptable to live in. So are we co-creating a world that we say, it is acceptable to wear every day that we don't do something or we do something? We are co-creating a world that we all will live in and that our children will live in and our grandchildren. And that is everything from the climate to what is happening politically, to what is happening socially and economically. It is top to bottom. 

And I, you know, that idea that we cannot be siloed and be a unified nation and people all with, you know, our hearts beating and pulsing as one global being who is just trying to like, move through this life on the planet for the short time that we're here.

Audra: Simultaneously, you and I right now. 

Tembi: Right. 

Audra: It's a blip on the timeline, right.

Tembi: Yeah. Yeah.

Audra: But, this is it. This is it. This is what we have. 

Tembi: This is what we have. 

Audra: Yeah. And this is what we have to give and to bring and to share and to build. And it is on us. And to hear this from you, to hear this all come together in this powerful way, I'm hearing the most powerful, impassioned, loving, grace-filled call to action from you. And this is a part of your power, just one facet of your power. And you still live full tilt and the part of that power so that you bring us in and that you bring to the world. You bring your experiences to the world. 

And I think you show that we can bring voice without vitriol. We can bring power without. I don't know how to put it, but it's just the way that you're able to kind of like help, folks see, we're all a part of this, and it's incumbent on all of us to show up. Now let's do it. Let's start with our little steps at home. Let's start here, how we respond in every given, any sticky, difficult situation and we build from there.

Tembi: And do. Practice that discomfort right in your own home and space. Practice it right here. Try it on.

Audra: It's beautiful. So I know that you've got to go. And we could talk probably for another few podcasts. And I know we'll get to do it again. And Justin always ends with three questions. I'm just going to end with one because I feel like we've had such a powerful, really beautiful end to this.

Tembi: I hope I'm ready.  

Audra: What Post-it would you put on every parent's fridge today if you could give the gift of a Post-it note message? What would it be? 

Tembi: Oh my gosh. Oh my God. Oh my God. “Just listen.” Just listen. That is the post. It's the thing. Yeah. Yes. Just listen, because there are times when I know I'm certainly guilty of it. And if my beautiful child were there with me, she would absolutely affirm that sometimes you're talking and then you're going and you're really moving at your point what you need to get out there because you feel so much like I got to get this across to them, I just gotta let them know this thing. When in fact, I learned and I continue to learn that in the act of listening. True, true listening.

Something bigger and more expansive than what I was thinking is probably right here in front of us. But together, if I'm listening, there's unison and actually, something better will emerge. So I would say often just listen. Just listen, because it's so kids are finding their words. They're still and I mean, literally, they're finding their words. And I don't mean, like, you know, we say, let's use your words when they're like three or four, use your words. But you can still say that's like a 17-year-old. It's like, “Really? What is that feeling? No, no. Talk to me more about that.” 

Audra: Use curiosity instead of, you know, how as parents, we often walk into this very often how we're raised, right? Like by, oh, you feel this way, we try to give them words, right? You're feeling this way. And when they're little, there is a way of describing emotions. I'm not. I'm not speaking of that, but it's more like I have experiences trying to ascribe things, put words in their mouth. Like, I know what you mean. And deploying curiosity to give them room to speak their truth. 

Tembi: Absolutely. And by the way, their truth ain't my truth. 

Audra: Yes. Yes, yes. 

Tembi: And like nothing more than being, you know, and I write this in the book being the parent of a grieving child where she — it's sort of like, “Your experience is not my experience, Mom.” 

And she pretty much told me that at seven, she was hardcore. And she said—look, I mean, when I say hardcore, she was her authentic and most honest self—when she said, “You have not lost your father.”

Audra: I remember when you first told me this.

Tembi: Right? She said, so you don't know she was seven. So right there, like I could have been like, Well, I think, you know, you know. No, she leveled it, she said, Let's get real clear. And so that taught me, “Oh, I need to zip it. Observe. Observe, you need to listen because she's having a different lived experience than I am. And the best I can do is support her in her experience, not try to put on to her an experience that is comforting to me.”

Audra: Oh, that's it. That's it. That is the core truth of us, not a, we're not able to sit in our discomfort. We want this to be more comfortable for us, we’re triggered. We don't know why we're activated. We don't want them to be. We don't want all of that. All of the feelings, it's too uncomfortable. It's too difficult. So how can I make myself more comfortable? 

Tembi: Exactly. 

Audra: Oh, it's powerful. 

Tembi: So just listen, just listen. You know what? Hold on. Ok, Audra, this is crazy. You just said what's in a post-it note? I did not know you were going to ask that question. You released the questions ahead of time. I didn't read them. I didn't know you were gonna ask them. 

But guess what? Guess what? Guess what? This is actually sitting on my desk because I'm doing it. So here, guess what? I'm going to write on this post-it note. Just listen. I'm going to you know, Dr. Take-my-own-medicine. I'm going to write. Just listen. And I'm going to put it on my fridge. 

Audra: Will you take a picture and send it to us, please, when you do it?  It's so powerful. I was coming to mind and I know we've got to go, is that the mom in “Never Have I Ever.” My daughter and I flip for this show. It is her favorite show. The mom’s leaning into this, isn't she? 

Tembi: Elise, first of all, I love playing Elise. I love Elise with all my heart. She is, literally, she's every mom, she is and she's like, “Ok, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to try really hard.” Like she is, you know, she is that part of so many parents. And sometimes Elise just needs to listen, and she knows she does. It's hard for her. But she will try.  

Audra: The end of last season, Elise got it.

Tembi: I know, I know, and I'm coming back for season three, so I don't know what's going to be up in their lives for season three, but I'm excited to find out. 

Audra: Cannot wait and thank you for bringing so much joy and power and presence, light, your authenticity, all of the things you bring into our home without knowing it through our television and through the book, through our television again on Netflix is going to happen. You are, and I mean this in every sense across cultures that I could, a true blessing in this world. You bless this world by bringing yourself authentically forward, by bringing your experiences, by bringing your truth, what you see, all of it. It's just an honor to be here in this, in this blip of a moment in time with you and thank you for sharing your precious time with us.

Tembi: Let me tell you, I stand hard for you. As the kids say these days.

Audra: I thank you for that. We'll use it later. 

Tembi: Yeah, I do. I do. And so it is my honor and privilege and pleasure to be here. So let's do it again. 

Audra: I'd love to thank you again.

Tembi: Have a beautiful I'm blessed day. Thank you. 

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

Close
Theme icon

Podcast /

Content /

Flourish

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

Join Audra and Justin as they have a deep and beautiful discussion about grief and authenticity with actor, author, and mom Tembi Locke.

Join The Family Thrive community and download the mobile app, all for free!

JOIN TODAY

Key takeaways

1

2

3

Low hassle, high nutrition

Fierce Food: Easy

Fierce Food: Easy

50/50 mixes of powerful veggies and starchy favorites

Fierce Food: Balance

Fierce Food: Balance

Maximize nutrients, minimize sugar and starch

Fierce Food: Power

Fierce Food: Power

Ingredients

Kitchen Equipment

Ingredient Replacement

View replacement list (PDF)

Reading time:

90 minutes

In this episode

You know today's guests from dozens of roles in television and movies, starting as one of Will Smith's crushes in the iconic “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to her most recent role as Elise Torres in Netflix's, in our opinion, hilarious and endearing comedy, “Never Have I Ever.” 

Along the way, she lived her best life working as an actress in Hollywood, falling in love with and marrying Saro Gullo, a Sicilian chef coping with his later cancer diagnosis, adopting a daughter, and then eventually caring for Saro and their daughter as he passed away in 2012. 

Her journey then turned toward understanding and living through grief. The lessons of which she turned into a 2019 memoir called From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Hope. The book has been adapted into a series by Netflix produced by Reese Witherspoon, coming out next year.

We met Tembi way back when she started doing work around grief and caregiving after her husband passed away. Our work with childhood cancer families and MaxLove Project provided a lot for us to connect over. And now, all these years later, we get to connect over growing through grief, finding resilience in the face of tragedy and planting roots and choosing love no matter what life throws our way. 

Tembi is an absolute light and joy, and we know you're going to love this conversation as much as we do. Settle in for the truly amazing, so funny, and really insightful Tembi Locke.

Listen here

Show notes

In this episode

You know today's guests from dozens of roles in television and movies, starting as one of Will Smith's crushes in the iconic “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to her most recent role as Elise Torres in Netflix's, in our opinion, hilarious and endearing comedy, “Never Have I Ever.” 

Along the way, she lived her best life working as an actress in Hollywood, falling in love with and marrying Saro Gullo, a Sicilian chef coping with his later cancer diagnosis, adopting a daughter, and then eventually caring for Saro and their daughter as he passed away in 2012. 

Her journey then turned toward understanding and living through grief. The lessons of which she turned into a 2019 memoir called From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Hope. The book has been adapted into a series by Netflix produced by Reese Witherspoon, coming out next year.

We met Tembi way back when she started doing work around grief and caregiving after her husband passed away. Our work with childhood cancer families and MaxLove Project provided a lot for us to connect over. And now, all these years later, we get to connect over growing through grief, finding resilience in the face of tragedy and planting roots and choosing love no matter what life throws our way. 

Tembi is an absolute light and joy, and we know you're going to love this conversation as much as we do. Settle in for the truly amazing, so funny, and really insightful Tembi Locke.

Listen here

Show notes

In this episode

You know today's guests from dozens of roles in television and movies, starting as one of Will Smith's crushes in the iconic “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to her most recent role as Elise Torres in Netflix's, in our opinion, hilarious and endearing comedy, “Never Have I Ever.” 

Along the way, she lived her best life working as an actress in Hollywood, falling in love with and marrying Saro Gullo, a Sicilian chef coping with his later cancer diagnosis, adopting a daughter, and then eventually caring for Saro and their daughter as he passed away in 2012. 

Her journey then turned toward understanding and living through grief. The lessons of which she turned into a 2019 memoir called From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Hope. The book has been adapted into a series by Netflix produced by Reese Witherspoon, coming out next year.

We met Tembi way back when she started doing work around grief and caregiving after her husband passed away. Our work with childhood cancer families and MaxLove Project provided a lot for us to connect over. And now, all these years later, we get to connect over growing through grief, finding resilience in the face of tragedy and planting roots and choosing love no matter what life throws our way. 

Tembi is an absolute light and joy, and we know you're going to love this conversation as much as we do. Settle in for the truly amazing, so funny, and really insightful Tembi Locke.

Listen here

Show notes

Enjoying this? Subscribe to The Family Thrive for more healthy recipes, video classes, and more.

Transcript highlights


2:34

Audra: Ok, so Justin makes the questions, and I mess it all up with conversation, so…

Tembi: I love it. 

Justin: Yes. It is a great dynamic. I try to keep the train on the tracks.

Audra: I try to derail us constantly. 

Justin: Visit all the small towns off the road, which is a great, yeah, it's a great mix. 

Audra: But I want to talk about From Scratch. I really want to. I know it's not what we're starting with here in our questions, but I feel so honored that you let us in on social media. You let all of us in on your journey. It feels so big to me. It feels so beautiful on so many levels because you have been so kind from the beginning of Max's diagnosis, really to welcome me into discussions of grief, to welcome me into your story, to you have helped me dig deeper into my journey and not just understand a search for a cure or not, you know, in a more dynamic view. 

Your book is gorgeous. It takes us through such a powerful life journey. Plus, I mean, you immerse us, right? And now you're bringing this to life in a show. Can you tell us about this process for you?

Tembi: First of all, everything you said, for whatever reason, in the way you lined up, I found myself getting super emotional just listening to it because I have been so in it and in the writing and then the sharing and then the adapting and then the filming, and I don't sometimes slow down to sort of, I'm not able to have that 30,000-foot view of the experience. I'm just sort of in it. And so every now and then when I take a breath and listen and like you, just that was a gift. Thank you for that share because it just made me sort of drop in and realize I have been doing that. 

Like, I have been intentionally, it sounds absurd because I wrote a book, but I have been intentionally sharing. But I have, and you know, it's been a ride. Unlike any other, it has expanded. You're talking about expanding. I have expanded far beyond my known capacity. Like I, I thought, I have capacity. Ok, I'm a person who, you know, if you take 10 people, probably out of the 10, on average I'm in, the two of us have got like a lot of capacity... It’s taught me that I've got capacity. 

And so, you know, it's been a beautiful experience, it's been a loving experience, it's been a hard experience, and in many ways at times it's mirrored my grief. But it's also mirrored, it's also spawned growth. Like the two things are always side by side. They just always sitting right next to each other. 

Audra: What's coming up for me is like hearing about the process for you of really bringing your book to screen and at the same time, I'm starting to think your sister is involved in this. And did she experience your grief differently? 

I'm going to cry thinking about this, like your daughter experiences differently? Like, it seems really big to me to bring not only the book to the world but then to bring this into the form that you're bringing it into now. So, yeah, keep exploring. 

Tembi: Well, I will say, listen, the writing and I could talk. I love talking about writing, and I wish I could say I was, you know, I've written one book, but I've been writing my whole life. So in a way not knowing, not with any professional intention or goal. It was just, for my own edification, growth, sorting through, like all the mental chatter and those doing that even as early as 14, you know, when I was like 14 and hating on my parents, I would like...to some degree, all of that was me trying to process my world and my lived experience. I've been doing that since I was really young, but it was only in my 40s and after a large life experience, being a parent and married and a caregiver and then widowed that I was like, “Wait a minute, I actually want to sort of not only document but sort of craft this life that I've had, like for myself.”

You know, writing is often making sense of a lived experience, especially with memoir, right? Memoir is literally about making sense and giving a kind of narrative to big life experiences. So that's what I was doing, you know, and I felt it was worthy of sharing because I knew that elements of my story were so universal. Like, I am clearly not the only one. 

But the things that made it kind of magical for me were that many people don't have all those things at one time, like, you know what I mean? I had this experience of a decade of full-tilt living, like full tilt everything. It was like motherhood and cancer and adoption and acting and two languages and food and college. I was like, “Whoa,” and I was like, “Oh, that's my soup,” right? And my fear when I started to write it was that no one would get it. It was like, it's too many things, it's too many things, it's not like, “Oh, she met a chef and she married him and that was great.” That's a story people can wrap their noggin around, right? 

But oh, wait, no, there's cancer. “Oh, oh, they're two cultures, Ok? Yeah, this is complicating it even more.” And then it just kind of went on and on. 

That's the energy that I brought to bare when I sat down to say, “Let me try to see if I can craft a narrative, a book, not just a single essay, but like a book from this.” And I said, Let me, having never done this before, let me just write the best book I can write for right now. I'm a first-time writer and we just write the best book I can write right now. And then I set my life up in such a way to kind of give myself the best shot at that. I kind of had to pare some things back to make space because I knew I was taking on a big endeavor. It was a very personal endeavor. 

And often when I was writing the book, I would have fights with my book, like, why did I ever think I could do this? Like, I don't understand where this is going. I'm like, one minute, I'm talking about being at a bar in Florence and like listening to David Bowie. And then the next minute, I'm making lentil soup, and then I'm suddenly in East Texas... Like, what is this thing I'm trying to write and it vexed me? Right. 

So you said, like this year, trying to wrap your heart and mind and you know the things you know about craft around all these words and events and memories and make history together. And so I got to a place where I thought, “Ok, you've done that. I succeeded.” 

It goes out into the world and shakin’ in my boots as it goes out into the world, because now it's not just me. I wrote the book, the room I’m in right now is where I pretty much wrote the book, here in my bedroom, in my car when my daughter was like, you know, at volleyball practice or, you know, whatever. I wrote the book on airplanes. I kind of like whenever the book wanted to come out, I was just, I made myself ready and available to receive it, you know, and to shape it. And it was very personal, very intimate, and I didn't talk about it with anybody. You know, I maybe told five people I was writing a book. You don’t go around being like, “Hey, I'm writing a book.” Well, you know, you just kind of get into it. One: because I thought, if I fall flat on my face, I don't want the whole world to know about it. And I have to be accountable to this. It's a personal endeavor. 

And then it did the thing that it did in the world, which it got picked up by Reese Witherspoon, Reese's Book Club and suddenly this very personal, intimate, private experience is now very, very public. People often think, well, that should be fine for you because you have a career as an actor and you're used to being in front of people. But those are someone else's words. That's someone else's story. I'm just sort of the, you know, the creative vessel and character who is bringing it to life. 

But suddenly, I was being asked to sort of speak now about my book, kind of, you know, the way I am now and from there Netflix came along and, you know, Netflix came along and now it's being made into a series and I'm adapting it with my sister. 

And so your question, my long way around is that what was a personal individual experience became very much a family experience again, in a different way because my sister and I adapted the book. She was right beside me through 80-90% of the lived experiences that I talk about in the book. And so for us to put our heads together as creative people, but also as the people who, you know, lived the events and adapt it, brought up a lot again. 

And I think we both have had to take care of ourselves through this process because in order to share about something and in order to write it or to recraft it, you have to travel back into it. And so it's been lovely to travel back into it with my sister because I'm doing it with a partner who I implicitly trust. We have the same sort of creative sort of sensibilities and language and approach, but we also have had to be very intentional about how we care for each other through the process.

Audra: I can just imagine and just feeling into this, I'm wondering what that self-care has looked like for you, if that surprised you, that facet of it. And I'm wondering if anything else surprised you? If it surprised you that this story really coming into the world, which is something that it sounds like it was not fully expected, if your feelings that came out from that also surprised you. 

Tembi: Yeah, it's been a mosaic of feelings. It has been everything from pure. I mean, every day I literally wake up like in this immense state of wonder, gratitude, and quasi disbelief. I'm like, “Wait, how did I get here?” And then I go open, I'm here, open, I'm here. And oh, what wonder is this? And from that place, I go forth and say—well, when I wrote the book, I said, “Let me write the best book I am capable of writing.” With adapting it for series for Netflix it's been a similar process. It's like, let us make the best series we're capable of making right now, for what we think the world needs right now. 

The fact that we began the writers’ room in 2019, the Fall of 2019, and I think you can see where I'm going with this right. We're in the writers’ room and we were about to break episode, there's eight episodes. Initially, there were going to be 10, but we were about to break, I think the second to the final episode and we got that call that said, “Everybody go home. We're done.” And we kept writing for a while as a team until we sort of had all the episodes laid out. 

And then everything went quiet as it all, as the world went quiet. And then Netflix returned to us and said, “We're ready to make the show.” So we've made the show. We've written the show, in the pandemic, and now we've produced and filmed it in the pandemic, so the self-care is happening on a couple of levels. There's the personal care of like, okay, we're the people who lived with this. We're being to some degree, not to some degree, off to a large degree entering back into those spaces. And when you write it on the page, it's one thing, but when you see it on set and you're like, wait, oh, in the 3D, this is it. This is what I lived.  But now there are other people playing the parts and you know, and so my sister and I would often turn to each other and just go, “Holy cow, what is happening?” And it has been truly beautiful and humbling. 

And every day we say, well, we've been given the privilege of this moment, of this opportunity. What can we do with it and how can we help to serve the world? And I know that feels like a big and lofty expanse, but I don't think you can write a show about love, grief, death, dying, and family and then produce it in the pandemic without asking yourself how can I serve the world right now? You know this isn't like a “Hey, let's tell the story to be just as fun.” No, it's like, “Let's share this story because.” 

And we really crafted the series without intentionality. I mean, when you pull, we had seven writers in the writers’ room together, and we're all bringing our lived experiences to it. When you adapt a story, when you adapt a book, fiction or nonfiction, it has to live in a different medium. So things are going to change. It's going to be fictionalized in places. But certainly, when you bring a team of other humans in, each person is adding their story into the story. 

So we had people in the writers’ room who had lived, who had been caregivers, who had walked people up to their final days. We had people who had great culinary experiences in their background, people who studied in Italy, people who, you know, knew about adoption and immigrants. So like everybody's plugging into it, it becomes this collective human story that has the essence and sort of given circumstances of my story like it kind of, it stays true to the given circumstance. But then it's really everybody's story.

Audra: So powerfully shared. And you answered the next question that I had, you know, kind of I had this sense of what we could all hope to potentially experience or see from this story and I was wondering what your perspective on that of like how this would land for folks, you know, like what the hopes would be with that, but with the shared collective story that there are so many facets we can all identify with.

Tembi: That's the thing that is my prayer and wish for the series as we continue to sort of we're in the editing phase now. And as it when it lands on Netflix and I don't know what the date will be, but it'll be, you know, next year sometime that viewers will be, some part of it, will speak to them and ask them if they walk away from the series, asking themselves “What more love could I seed in the world?” 

Audra: I think we want to put a pin in that, put a pin in that quote. That is absolutely incredible. And that hits me really hard, that it's something that like coming from the childhood cancer journey, all of the work that we do, what we've shared, you know, I think we share in these hopes of what we share with the world. It's a powerful mission. 

Justin: What I love about this entire discussion here is everything you've hit on goes back to something you said at the beginning was that when you started to write this book, you were feeling into the universality of so many of your experiences. And I mean, really, you described how there was so much going into this book because so much has happened in your life, but at each point, it's so universal. I mean, so I've really identified with this childhood of a kind of uprootedness in your childhood and then the writing and your story really feels like a project of growing roots, of becoming rooted. And so I'm wondering if you can say more about this because this really came through so clear in your childhood. 

Tembi: Oh my gosh, Justin, thank you so much for that, because, you know, initially when I was sort of thinking about the book and I knew Sicily would be this character in the book, I knew that this place that I returned to each summer, those summers, especially the first, the book takes place, the first three summers after Saro passed when I go, but I continue to go. I kept asking myself, “What is that return about? Like, why is this place so important?” Yes, my mother-in-law is there, yes, I bring my daughter to be with her grandmother. Yes. It reminds me of my husband. Yes, the food is good. And yes, the Mediterranean Sea and all of those yes’s.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. 

Tembi: Yeah. Well, what about it for Tembi, like deep, deep, deep down inside. And the first thought I had was that grief is very dislocating. It's dislocating in time and space. I think, for me that is my, and I don't think it's an uncommon experience of grief. You know, my own home didn't feel like my own home anymore. My everything felt both the same and completely different, and it was very disorienting and dislocating. 

And so having a place to go to where I could just be an anchor myself, literally grounded me. And so I said, ok, I get that from the grief perspective, why Sicily is the grounding place to sort of anchor myself. But then I thought, what and it was really the point in the book when my mother in law gifted me land there, and I really spent a lot of time in the writing of the book trying to unpack why that touched me the way it did. At first, I was just like, it's a great gift, but no, it really hit me in a primal way. 

And I realized that there was this young part of me from early childhood. That child of divorce. Lots of moving around. Different family makeups, that had been looking for a kind and quality of home that was consistent, that was ever-present, that was unconditional and unwavering. And I didn't have an unhappy childhood. I had a childhood, not unlike many people, especially American children, you know? Other parts of the world, people who might, you know, live in the same place with the same nuclear family. I had, you know, I had my own experience and something about when I was writing the book and I connected those two, when I realized that receiving the gift of the land was so meaningful because I was someone who had longed for a kind of home.

 I started asking my other questions about what does it mean to have a home? And I realized I'd been looking for a home in my relationships. I had been looking for a home in so many places my whole life. And I realized, let me lean into that and sort of weave that through the book. At first, I thought, nobody's going to get that because it feels too esoteric. But I thought I'm going to try to make that connective tissue because I feel like there's a part of us that always wants to be seen, heard, and witnessed for our experience. 

And for me, as a grieved, newly grieving mother and widow, I wanted to be seen and witnessed for that experience, for having been a caregiver. And now that whole part of my identity is gone. I didn't know what to do with myself because I didn't have that to charge me each day. And so being in Sicily, being at my mother-in-law’s table, talking to her, which I write about a lot in the book, she was seeing me for all of those life experiences. And in our conversations, she sensed this person needs an anchor. She just needs an anchor in the world. 

And I think that that gesture, because I can't say it's not some big palatial like, you know, plot of land, and it's certainly not like, you know, “Under the Tuscan Sun” with like a gorgeous villa on rolling hills and, you know, cypress trees and groves and groves and groves of olive trees. None of that, right? It's a sloping plot of land, but it was the symbol of it and also the gift of it that rooted me. And I think we all need to be rooted.

Audra: That is so beautiful.

Justin: I keep coming back to the childhood portion of your book because I really resonate with this. And then when you said when you were 14 and writing in your journal like, oh man, you know. 

So, you know, there's so much universal there. And then as you grow up, as you come into the world, you start to and then you just described choosing your family like there's a biological family. And then there is the family that you choose. I want to know more about this process for you or your family of choice. You know, how you've brought this into your life up to the present day. 

Tembi: You know, if you'd asked me 10, 15, 20 years ago, like I didn't even have language for it. I just, whoever I could be my most authentic self with, I was like, I claim you, I'm not letting you go. I'm with you. You are my peeps. Like, from here to eternity, you are my peeps.

Like, if I feel that I can trust you, be witnessed, be seen, and be authentic with you in all my goofiness, in my expansion, in my dreams, and my sorrows, then I think we're a tribe. Let's call each other a tribe, you know? 

And so I have this sort of family of friends and of course, with Saro, one of the things about marrying someone of a different culture and we, you know, not of a shared mother tongue, is that we do have to really choose each other with a great deal of intentionality because you can't rely on like, “Oh my god, we grew up listening to the same music,” or like, “Oh yeah...we had none of the same shared stuff.” Like, I was like, what? Who are you playing music? What is that? That sounds insane. I hate it. You know, but we find these ways, so I guess I began to sort of have a practice. 

A felt sense that, “Oh, I can be myself with you,” and I feel like that's the best sort of to me, litmus test for who you choose to keep in your life, who you invite in and who you choose to pull into your inner circle. And by the way, those people don't have to look like you come from the same culture you did. They don't even have to speak the same language. It's like, that's the one thing about my life that I didn't know that many years ago, but I can unequivocally say that now, that I did…

Justin: When did you discover that?

Tembi: You know, I think I've discovered it along the way. I will say one of the things when it really became crystal clear and conscious for me was, again, in Sicily. There's someone in Sicily who—I will not say their name—they live in the town and we see each other once a year. My Sicilian is very bad. My Italian is decent, it used to be better. But as years go by without someone to practice to, it's like I have to like, you know, I click into it when I get there. 

But we don't like a lot of, and she speaks no English. And yet when we get together, we have the best time. And what I mean by that is we each can go to like we can just drop into our most authentic selves. I realize, like, “How do I carry on a relationship?” And I call it a relationship. We like WhatsApp a couple of times during the year, the intervening year, Christmas and Easter, and then I see her in the summer. It's one of the relationships I really value in my life, and I look forward to our connections. 

So I thought to myself, “Oh, this is that example of choosing family.” And you know, and maybe also just into your question about the childhood I always went to, because I changed schools so often I was thrown in with lots of different types of people and lots of different classes. You know, middle class, the rich, all of it, people who were the working poor, then different races, everything in my own family, they're sort of that hybrid of folks. 

And so I feel like I never was someone who could spend my life relying on, “Oh, we all have to come from those that had a similar set of circumstances in order to be each other.” And I also understood that sometimes I was closer with people who were not like me, that I work with people who are my own biological genetic family. So right there, that also to me, doesn't kind of matter. It doesn't matter.

Audra: Did it teach you or show you to trust something in yourself around energetic connection? It sounds like with this woman in Sicily, there is a deep, energetic right. It's beyond words. Did your childhood teach you how to tap into that? 

Tembi: I think it did. I think it did. It's funny in the way, you know, as I did it now and think about it, I do think there was that part of my young, very young self who was seeking a place to be all of who I was. And so I was the kid, very early on, I was like the only girl who would play with all the boys on the block and all the other girls were like, “Why are you doing that? You're not supposed to play with the boys.” And I was like, “They are more fun. Like that’s who I'm going to play with.” 

Audra: I can identify what that. 

Tembi: They want to play pirates and I want to be a pirate. As long as I could be the captain of the ship, I will be there, you know? Yeah, I was very much that kind of little kid. And so I do feel as though being all of who you are feels so good, that I kept seeking out that feeling. 

And I think I've just been seeking that feeling over and over again because some part of me understood that I could be more of who I was, I had more fun, I was more capacious in the world when I could just be me. 

And sometimes that just wasn't the people who were maybe, you know, my first cousins or in my family. It was like other people. And now I was like, “Oh, those people can be family as well.” 

Justin: So staying on this line or this idea around your authentic self, was there a shift or a transition when you became a mother? Was that you felt something happen with the core? 

Tembi: Totally. Because then I mean, one of the things about motherhood that happens is suddenly your heart is like going along and you're like, “I am a loving full person in this world and that feels great.” And suddenly you have a child and you are like, “Holy moly, I have so much love, it's like bursting from me and I don't know what to do.” And it's like I’m scared, like, what happens if I break the person like you? 

Suddenly, the stakes change for me. I became a mother through adoption, that kind of intentionality of saying, you little person that we get to spend our lives together. What a joyous gift that is. And now I have the privilege and honor of caring for your little heart. And that, for me, was a lot about wanting to, and I think this is very common for most parents is that we want to give our children the things that we didn't have. 

And I don't mean things as in objects, but I mean experiences and, we want to heal parts of ourselves that were a little bit broken and didn't quite fit and all those things, right? And so you sort of, this child comes into your life and suddenly you want to down with all of these things that you didn't get. And then you realize, “Oh, wait, they're on their own path and they're going to teach me as much as I might and I hope to teach them.” I always say what I hope to teach her. You know, how I hope to guide her. 

Justin: Tembi, was there an aha moment where you're like, “Oh, this person is not me, like they've got their own path?”

Tembi: Well, you know, one of the things I will say for sure about, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, but coming to parenthood through adoption, I was always clear about the fact that this child is a human that I get to share my life with. But she is not a replica of me. She did not literally come through this vessel, but we are in a joint, beautiful dance together and the best I can do is to honor the soul and individuality for who she is. 

Knowing that there are whole parts of who she is that will, it sounds strange to say, remain invisible to me. And what I mean by that is to say when you get older, like my child is a teen now, and clearly, I know now there are many parts of her life that will always remain invisible to me. It’s literally set up that way for a reason. That's not a bad thing. B

ut I also think there was some part of me, you know, my mom still calls me that she's like, I don't know what's going on in your life, and I'm thinking to myself, “Mhhhmmmm.” 

I say that to say that, as I was aware of that even as she was an infant. I didn't have the, you know, often I think when you can look at your child and you see your eyes or you see your genetic code or you see your genetic imprint, there's this way that you kind of come to it seeing yourself. You know, I came to it seeing someone whose life was taken to discover and bloom in front of me. And that's a different experience. 

Audra: Yeah, it's also a mirage. And so I think that it's so powerful to hear of this from you because I feel like it's so much of our work as parents and that you entered into this relationship. This beautiful, loving motherhood relationship with this understanding is so powerful because for many of us, it's our work to do to kind of pull apart that veil and see that I've got to manage it, manage myself. 

Like you said, every single bit of healing and all of the things that I want to do through my child is my work to do and not through my child, right? Like I've gotta face it.

And it can be hard to see. It can be really hard to see through that. I think it's powerful to hear. And it sounds like to me, one thing that really strikes me is that you're such a courageous person, who strikes me as a cycle-breaker. 

Starting with your drive into your authenticity as a child and knowing you, as I've known you as somebody who has wanted to, it seems to me break the cycle of not talking about grief, of not talking about bereavement, of keeping these things in ourselves and keeping in silence. So I'd love to hear more about that and how maybe it even translates into your motherhood. But that feels like a theme to me that you've had the courage to say “There are a number of things that we're going to talk about and that need to be talked about in this world.” So I'd love to know more about this experience of grief and motherhood with your daughter and how you are bringing things to light.

Tembi: I can see that about myself now. I didn't. And in some ways, it's a lesson or an awareness that I've come to later in life. I never would have called myself like a challenger or a rabble-rouser or like, you know, get in there and mix it. But I think I quietly my whole life been poking at the bear kind of like food that makes sense to me. 

But I think you're right to me and often through my art and through my creativity because I think it was a space that I felt permission to play and to sort of push boundaries in. After Saro passed, the first thing I did before the book was create The Kitchen Widow. And that was it's a website that was really dedicated to caregiving and specifically families going through caregiving and grief.

 And that really was an outgrowth of me trying to find a way to bring my whole self as a newly widowed and a grieving mom to an act of service and had all of those things be an act of service. And I've always come to things from the service model, but that has really come from my grandparents, my grandparents top-down both sides, people of service in their community, right. Didn't talk about it and didn't walk around with the banner, you know, just quietly getting shit done. Excuse my French. Just out there serving, a very powerful model to witness growing up.

I think in some ways I saw the way you could affect change in the world, make a meaningful difference, gift people a kind of love simply by shifting things. And so one story I have is my grandmother. My mother's mom in East Texas was the kind of woman who often said to me, “If you see a need, fill it.” I've never forgotten that and I tried to this day to still live by that. And so to a large degree, the ways that my bravery, my courageousness has simply come out of “Well, what do I have the capacity to do right now? How might I serve this situation?” And you know, it's from that place that I take risks, you know, and often in service of love or anything else. And it's one of the things I'm learning now is to also do that in service to myself, my own care, my own family.


40:26

Tembi: When I first started writing, when I was taking classes at UCLA, I actually tried to write an essay about how with acting, it taught me about caregiving. And clearly, I did not do well in writing because nobody got what I was trying to say. But what I was essentially beginning to was this very idea; is that career, that showing up day after day, giving it your best, all the time, my integrity around my work and my artistry and that craftsmanship—I would not sacrifice that. I wouldn't do it half-assed. I had to be all in. But with the knowledge that I could be all-in, but it still might not be for me. It may not be my part and my time will come. 

And there's a kind of trust that you have to live with and that that helped me as a caregiver because it, well, we got to show up. We got to try all the things. We had to give it our friggin best. We got a turnover stone. We're going to really be fully open about it. We don't know. We just don't know. We don't know if this thing is going to work. We don't know how you're going to feel on this. 

We don't know if we make that plan to go on this trip that you'll be able to do it. But we're not going to not try. We're not going to not give our best and that mindset I got from being an actor. And so you call it resilience, and it was resilience.

Justin: And the parallels to parenthood of like, you could put yourself in it and your child is going to throw that food on the floor or they're going to refuse to do this or, you know, and then yet you come back day after day and you keep doing it. 

Tembi: Someone told me at—ah, I don’t know if you know, Soaring Spirits is an organization that serves the widowed people internationally, but also their families. And she said to me, the founder whose name is Michelle, she's actually up for a CNN Hero award. So yay, Michelle. But she told me, we were talking and she said, you know, with my daughter after her, she was newly remarried and she said her daughter was a teen and she was just pushing back and pushing back and pushing back. And she said the role is to put, they're going to slam the door. And what we have to do is just put our foot with our foot between the door and the door jam. 

You know, it's just, you just keep raising your foot in there over and over again, like, you're just not going to set it all the way. And that's kind of it. Like, that's a metaphor for love and showing up and saying, you know what, I'm never going to let the door fully shut. Like, I'll wedge my foot in there. I'll do it, you know, I'll be crippled and hurting but I’ll try!

Audra: I think this is so powerful because to me, it does speak to showing up and we're so outcomes based in our society that it's a really powerful testament to really, really showing up without that outcome or end in mind.

Tembi: Because we don't know. If you told me literally when they went, what was it for us, it was March 14, 2020, whenever they said, “Ok, go home. Oh yeah, this will be for two weeks.” Convinced, convinced it's going to be two weeks. I mean, literally, you couldn't wait that, you couldn’t move them off or that they just knew two weeks. 

So let me just say, we're all here to say we don't know jack, and you don't. Well, what we do know, the one thing we do know that I can say I know for sure, to quote Oprah, what I know for sure is that: how we show up and how we meet those moments in our lives make up the kind of quality of life we have, the kind of relationships we have and that's really the thing that we have say, that we have agency over.

I don't have agency over the weather, what my kid is going to do a week from now, where my career is, I don't have. What I have agency over is how I'm going to show up each day. And for me, that comes back to I find I work best when I come to the table with my most humble, grateful, and loving self. And by the way, that is a practice I have come to. 

So when I'm grumpy, stuff isn’t going the way I want it to go, I'm irritated, I'm exhausted. The prayer, the wish, the desire, label it whatever you want, for me is let me bring my most humble, grateful, and loving self to this. Because sometimes, like my personality is keyed up and I'm irritated and friggin don't want to deal with something or this is a challenge, or it's asking more of me than I'm capable of or I'm insecure about it, or I just don't know. So then when I feel that I just say, “Ok, what is my most grateful, loving, and humble response to this moment?” And from that, I don't know what it will look like, but it'll be better than if I didn’t.

Audra: Yeah, so you take a pause, you take a pause and you ask yourself that grounding question. And to me, that reminds me of one of my favorites, I feel like a lighthouse for me, has been the work of Viktor Frankl, A Man's Search for Meaning. And that concept that our last enduring freedom is our freedom to choose how we respond to any point of stimulus. That's what I'm hearing from you. And the power of it, the power of being and why is it in this society we are taught that if you don't have an immediate come back response that you get in the water? 

Tembi: You know what, because that is an emotionally immature cultural response to the human experience. Because the reality is, no, we can't. And it's funny, you know, I talk a lot, going back to the book, you know, my mother-in-law who has been one of my great teachers about just life. 

And one of the things you know, she often said was, I'd be like, “Ok, well…” as simple as “I'm going to go get bread” and” I'll get some cheese and I'll be back at this time.” And she will literally respond to me “if God wants.” And I’d be like oh my God, this is such Sicilian pathos here. What the hell. If God wants? Like, no, I’m just going to get the bread, and the cheese and the olives.

Audra: I'm pretty sure. And she's like, “If God wants.” 

Tembi: So unpacking that, at the core of that message is, “Honey. We don't know, you could walk out that door and we don't know.” And it's baked into the cultural language. It breaks into how people perceive the world now. Some people call that fatalism. Some people, I mean, there are many words, and by the way, it can skew into that, but at its core is a sense that we don't know what the next moment might bring.

And so actually, if it's, you know, there's a kind of divine or unspoken or unseen, you know, guiding force that is at play here that we don't have complete human dominion over. So go get the bread and cheese and olives. Hope to see you back. But it's a good reminder. You know, it's such a good reminder to like, hold it lightly, and be grateful.

Audra: It's powerful. It's a powerful reminder. And I wonder if your grief, the grief you carry this season in your life has in many ways or in some ways given you, I mean, you've walked, I can only imagine that significant not only pain and discomfort, but really having to rest with and sit in that space of the unknowns from moment to moment. And I think of you deeply with that, and it makes me think when you talk about giving birth to the show through COVID, how you came into COVID with a whole different understanding of the world and of this project of living from this perspective.

Tembi: Totally. And I mean, Audra, I'm sure you as well. I mean, any of us who walked the path of lifelong, life-threatening illness, who have lived at the frontlines of caregiving, who have interface with medical systems and hospital systems, and have tried to navigate mysterious symptoms, unknown outcomes. Like if you've lived that and that is your day-to-day. 

When COVID came along, I was like, “Oh, the rest of the world is just, it's like my experience is now global.” 

And by the way, the scale of that is actually too much for the human heart to hold. I mean, it's hard enough to hold it in an individual life. You know, I think it's why people are often, you know, hospital-phobic. I had friends with that when Saro was ill who were like, “I would love to come. I just can't come into the hospital. I just can't come visit because I can't walk into the hospital.” 

My first response was, “Oh my God, get over yourself, just come visit.” But ultimately, you know, what I've come to understand from a more empathetic place now is that, oh, what that really is, sure, the deeper fears about life, death, the unknown, the what it triggers in people. So when we were all living through COVID. It was like that spread across the globe. Like that was the energy of that was so intense. We were never meant to experience that on a global scale. 

Audra: And to be aware of the global scale, right?

Tembi: And to be aware of it. I mean, it was beyond. And so for those of us who I was both being retriggered by my own personal experiences, like over and over again, my old fears of like, Oh my gosh, what happens if we're going to? But then watching it said it was a great deal. So then to be still in the middle of all of that, masked, you know, with all the COVID tests, every and then I try to take a troop of 200 people into production every day for 12-14 hours a day and make a TV show. Was no small thing, no small thing. 

And the ways in which the subject matter of what we were filming and what story we're seeking to tell touched every individual crew member on that set. So it wasn't just the story that was playing out on screen with the actors, with the costumes and wardrobe and the given circumstance. But there were people who were our prop masters, who were our wardrobe designers, who were hairstylists who were lighting people. 

Everybody's had a life. Everybody knows someone. Everybody has a mom or brother, sister, a child, an uncle, a friend who has walked a path. And so suddenly being on set would bring that up. 

And so I was as the creator and as a producer and as the writer sort of aware of both the ways in which my own stuff was coming out, but also the ways in which we're having to wrap our hearts and minds around the whole troop of people now because we're all in this big human experience together. And some days it was like, let's just send love and light to everybody here on the set because we are trying to do something really brave right now in unprecedented circumstances.

Audra: That will only radiate from there. And I'm thinking put that on the world stage where I feel the fear, distrust of the government, the political aspects of it, the vitriol against the health care system and vaccines and change and all of that. What I'm seeing in that is grief, unacknowledged grief, pain, fear.

Tembi: Completely. I have been saying for years and I think we ought we talk about it now. By the way, I don't claim it as my own original idea, but it was something that an idea I came across very early in my grief, specifically in communities who lacked access to proper grief counseling services were able to take off after that, I had the privilege of time after Saro passed to care for myself. That is a privilege and a gift. 

Most people do not have that and particularly in certain underserved communities, and that unexpressed grief becomes a medical crisis. It shows up as diabetes. It shows up as anxiety. It shows up as depression. And so that unexpressed grief has many faces and in this a public health crisis. It is a public health crisis. When I see the enraged person doing whatever out in the world, supermarket, road, you know, wherever I'm like, “Um, there's some stuff going on underneath all of that.”

Audra: Trauma trigger, right? Whatever, whatever that might be. Right. Unaddressed, unacknowledged, unseen, unheard.

Tembi: Unheard, unseen. And by the way, because there were days you and I, you know, I touch on this a little bit in the book. Early on in my grief, I felt like an insane person. I felt so untethered. So literally every particle of my physical form was like floating outside of me. It felt so strange to be alive in the world when I was in so much pain, and the person who was my person was no longer here. 

If that made me feel so quote-unquote crazy, if you will, or outside of myself and I have the resource of time. I had therapy. I went to grief counseling. I had close family and friends. I had people leaving soup on my door every day. I had a career that could wait for me. I had the privilege of all of that and I still felt as unmoored as I did. 

Imagine the human, imagine the person, which is the majority of our society who does not have that level of care. So the one thing the pandemic has taught us is it allowed us to give it a space and public conversations about this. You know, when we were talking about this five, six years ago, we were like, over in a corner. You know, just talking about it, like trying to go, “Hey world. Pay attention to this thing because it's kind of like in the human experience and we all need to be dealing with it.” 

And when the pandemic hit, I think we all were able to acknowledge that in a new and deeper way, and the question remains for us as a society and as a globe, will we keep the conversation going? Will we enact change that makes the path easier? 

You said something so wise to me many years ago, and I've never forgotten it. You said, “We, with the work of MaxLove, the idea is that we want to make the path easier for the people who come behind us.” I mean those are not your exact words, but the sentiment. That's what I heard and that has always stayed with me, always stayed with me. 

And so my question to all of us as a society across the globe is, will we make it easier for the generations who are going to come behind us? Or will we sit deaf, mute, blind, you know, dumb to our present reality, continue the status quo and not really change things. And that can seem so big and seems so large and it is. But it’s also super micro. You can do it on a daily basis in your own life and in your own community. It has exponential things that there is nothing. 

The pandemic taught us that too because I will tell you, you know, to get political for five seconds. What I saw was not far from my home, a block away, people taking to the streets and mass protests for things that did not feel right to them anymore. And so whereas before people have been dormant and willing to sort of go along to get along, willing to not really plugin or turn a cheek or turn a deaf ear to the outcries of their fellow citizens, suddenly they couldn't. And so we know that and that happened with micro-changes with a big catalyst, big catalyst. 

The catalyst of not just the pandemic, but violence enacted by the people who are tasked to protect us. But we saw what happens when we do really, really, really stand up at the individual level. And so I say, will we continue to do that around this conversation, basic health care, and mental services for those folks, when we are grieving. 

No one is going to get to this life without losing someone. You just won't. You will at some point. I saw my own health decline and change, meaning I was more anxious. Nutrition was really hard for me. You know, I was in and out of life. I just, I couldn't sleep. All of those things have a net effect on your health. So they become a public health crisis, not just a mental health crisis, but actually, you know, a public health crisis.

Audra: It's, I think, a perfect way to kind of close this out for at least today. It really speaks to how as we start to show up, as we start to break the cycles and seek change in our own lives, which starts with our work. And it starts with how we show up in the world and show up with those immediately around us and then into our community. We become paradigm shifters. Our communities really start to make change, and I can't agree with you more that this is a part of the COVID, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, our response to injustice and inequity where I was raised in a time of silence. I was raised in a time when people said, This isn't our business and we're coming to learn, this is our business. This is all of our business.

Tembi: It’s all of our business. Every day we are out here co-creating the world we deem acceptable to live in. So are we co-creating a world that we say, it is acceptable to wear every day that we don't do something or we do something? We are co-creating a world that we all will live in and that our children will live in and our grandchildren. And that is everything from the climate to what is happening politically, to what is happening socially and economically. It is top to bottom. 

And I, you know, that idea that we cannot be siloed and be a unified nation and people all with, you know, our hearts beating and pulsing as one global being who is just trying to like, move through this life on the planet for the short time that we're here.

Audra: Simultaneously, you and I right now. 

Tembi: Right. 

Audra: It's a blip on the timeline, right.

Tembi: Yeah. Yeah.

Audra: But, this is it. This is it. This is what we have. 

Tembi: This is what we have. 

Audra: Yeah. And this is what we have to give and to bring and to share and to build. And it is on us. And to hear this from you, to hear this all come together in this powerful way, I'm hearing the most powerful, impassioned, loving, grace-filled call to action from you. And this is a part of your power, just one facet of your power. And you still live full tilt and the part of that power so that you bring us in and that you bring to the world. You bring your experiences to the world. 

And I think you show that we can bring voice without vitriol. We can bring power without. I don't know how to put it, but it's just the way that you're able to kind of like help, folks see, we're all a part of this, and it's incumbent on all of us to show up. Now let's do it. Let's start with our little steps at home. Let's start here, how we respond in every given, any sticky, difficult situation and we build from there.

Tembi: And do. Practice that discomfort right in your own home and space. Practice it right here. Try it on.

Audra: It's beautiful. So I know that you've got to go. And we could talk probably for another few podcasts. And I know we'll get to do it again. And Justin always ends with three questions. I'm just going to end with one because I feel like we've had such a powerful, really beautiful end to this.

Tembi: I hope I'm ready.  

Audra: What Post-it would you put on every parent's fridge today if you could give the gift of a Post-it note message? What would it be? 

Tembi: Oh my gosh. Oh my God. Oh my God. “Just listen.” Just listen. That is the post. It's the thing. Yeah. Yes. Just listen, because there are times when I know I'm certainly guilty of it. And if my beautiful child were there with me, she would absolutely affirm that sometimes you're talking and then you're going and you're really moving at your point what you need to get out there because you feel so much like I got to get this across to them, I just gotta let them know this thing. When in fact, I learned and I continue to learn that in the act of listening. True, true listening.

Something bigger and more expansive than what I was thinking is probably right here in front of us. But together, if I'm listening, there's unison and actually, something better will emerge. So I would say often just listen. Just listen, because it's so kids are finding their words. They're still and I mean, literally, they're finding their words. And I don't mean, like, you know, we say, let's use your words when they're like three or four, use your words. But you can still say that's like a 17-year-old. It's like, “Really? What is that feeling? No, no. Talk to me more about that.” 

Audra: Use curiosity instead of, you know, how as parents, we often walk into this very often how we're raised, right? Like by, oh, you feel this way, we try to give them words, right? You're feeling this way. And when they're little, there is a way of describing emotions. I'm not. I'm not speaking of that, but it's more like I have experiences trying to ascribe things, put words in their mouth. Like, I know what you mean. And deploying curiosity to give them room to speak their truth. 

Tembi: Absolutely. And by the way, their truth ain't my truth. 

Audra: Yes. Yes, yes. 

Tembi: And like nothing more than being, you know, and I write this in the book being the parent of a grieving child where she — it's sort of like, “Your experience is not my experience, Mom.” 

And she pretty much told me that at seven, she was hardcore. And she said—look, I mean, when I say hardcore, she was her authentic and most honest self—when she said, “You have not lost your father.”

Audra: I remember when you first told me this.

Tembi: Right? She said, so you don't know she was seven. So right there, like I could have been like, Well, I think, you know, you know. No, she leveled it, she said, Let's get real clear. And so that taught me, “Oh, I need to zip it. Observe. Observe, you need to listen because she's having a different lived experience than I am. And the best I can do is support her in her experience, not try to put on to her an experience that is comforting to me.”

Audra: Oh, that's it. That's it. That is the core truth of us, not a, we're not able to sit in our discomfort. We want this to be more comfortable for us, we’re triggered. We don't know why we're activated. We don't want them to be. We don't want all of that. All of the feelings, it's too uncomfortable. It's too difficult. So how can I make myself more comfortable? 

Tembi: Exactly. 

Audra: Oh, it's powerful. 

Tembi: So just listen, just listen. You know what? Hold on. Ok, Audra, this is crazy. You just said what's in a post-it note? I did not know you were going to ask that question. You released the questions ahead of time. I didn't read them. I didn't know you were gonna ask them. 

But guess what? Guess what? Guess what? This is actually sitting on my desk because I'm doing it. So here, guess what? I'm going to write on this post-it note. Just listen. I'm going to you know, Dr. Take-my-own-medicine. I'm going to write. Just listen. And I'm going to put it on my fridge. 

Audra: Will you take a picture and send it to us, please, when you do it?  It's so powerful. I was coming to mind and I know we've got to go, is that the mom in “Never Have I Ever.” My daughter and I flip for this show. It is her favorite show. The mom’s leaning into this, isn't she? 

Tembi: Elise, first of all, I love playing Elise. I love Elise with all my heart. She is, literally, she's every mom, she is and she's like, “Ok, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to try really hard.” Like she is, you know, she is that part of so many parents. And sometimes Elise just needs to listen, and she knows she does. It's hard for her. But she will try.  

Audra: The end of last season, Elise got it.

Tembi: I know, I know, and I'm coming back for season three, so I don't know what's going to be up in their lives for season three, but I'm excited to find out. 

Audra: Cannot wait and thank you for bringing so much joy and power and presence, light, your authenticity, all of the things you bring into our home without knowing it through our television and through the book, through our television again on Netflix is going to happen. You are, and I mean this in every sense across cultures that I could, a true blessing in this world. You bless this world by bringing yourself authentically forward, by bringing your experiences, by bringing your truth, what you see, all of it. It's just an honor to be here in this, in this blip of a moment in time with you and thank you for sharing your precious time with us.

Tembi: Let me tell you, I stand hard for you. As the kids say these days.

Audra: I thank you for that. We'll use it later. 

Tembi: Yeah, I do. I do. And so it is my honor and privilege and pleasure to be here. So let's do it again. 

Audra: I'd love to thank you again.

Tembi: Have a beautiful I'm blessed day. Thank you. 

Transcript highlights


2:34

Audra: Ok, so Justin makes the questions, and I mess it all up with conversation, so…

Tembi: I love it. 

Justin: Yes. It is a great dynamic. I try to keep the train on the tracks.

Audra: I try to derail us constantly. 

Justin: Visit all the small towns off the road, which is a great, yeah, it's a great mix. 

Audra: But I want to talk about From Scratch. I really want to. I know it's not what we're starting with here in our questions, but I feel so honored that you let us in on social media. You let all of us in on your journey. It feels so big to me. It feels so beautiful on so many levels because you have been so kind from the beginning of Max's diagnosis, really to welcome me into discussions of grief, to welcome me into your story, to you have helped me dig deeper into my journey and not just understand a search for a cure or not, you know, in a more dynamic view. 

Your book is gorgeous. It takes us through such a powerful life journey. Plus, I mean, you immerse us, right? And now you're bringing this to life in a show. Can you tell us about this process for you?

Tembi: First of all, everything you said, for whatever reason, in the way you lined up, I found myself getting super emotional just listening to it because I have been so in it and in the writing and then the sharing and then the adapting and then the filming, and I don't sometimes slow down to sort of, I'm not able to have that 30,000-foot view of the experience. I'm just sort of in it. And so every now and then when I take a breath and listen and like you, just that was a gift. Thank you for that share because it just made me sort of drop in and realize I have been doing that. 

Like, I have been intentionally, it sounds absurd because I wrote a book, but I have been intentionally sharing. But I have, and you know, it's been a ride. Unlike any other, it has expanded. You're talking about expanding. I have expanded far beyond my known capacity. Like I, I thought, I have capacity. Ok, I'm a person who, you know, if you take 10 people, probably out of the 10, on average I'm in, the two of us have got like a lot of capacity... It’s taught me that I've got capacity. 

And so, you know, it's been a beautiful experience, it's been a loving experience, it's been a hard experience, and in many ways at times it's mirrored my grief. But it's also mirrored, it's also spawned growth. Like the two things are always side by side. They just always sitting right next to each other. 

Audra: What's coming up for me is like hearing about the process for you of really bringing your book to screen and at the same time, I'm starting to think your sister is involved in this. And did she experience your grief differently? 

I'm going to cry thinking about this, like your daughter experiences differently? Like, it seems really big to me to bring not only the book to the world but then to bring this into the form that you're bringing it into now. So, yeah, keep exploring. 

Tembi: Well, I will say, listen, the writing and I could talk. I love talking about writing, and I wish I could say I was, you know, I've written one book, but I've been writing my whole life. So in a way not knowing, not with any professional intention or goal. It was just, for my own edification, growth, sorting through, like all the mental chatter and those doing that even as early as 14, you know, when I was like 14 and hating on my parents, I would like...to some degree, all of that was me trying to process my world and my lived experience. I've been doing that since I was really young, but it was only in my 40s and after a large life experience, being a parent and married and a caregiver and then widowed that I was like, “Wait a minute, I actually want to sort of not only document but sort of craft this life that I've had, like for myself.”

You know, writing is often making sense of a lived experience, especially with memoir, right? Memoir is literally about making sense and giving a kind of narrative to big life experiences. So that's what I was doing, you know, and I felt it was worthy of sharing because I knew that elements of my story were so universal. Like, I am clearly not the only one. 

But the things that made it kind of magical for me were that many people don't have all those things at one time, like, you know what I mean? I had this experience of a decade of full-tilt living, like full tilt everything. It was like motherhood and cancer and adoption and acting and two languages and food and college. I was like, “Whoa,” and I was like, “Oh, that's my soup,” right? And my fear when I started to write it was that no one would get it. It was like, it's too many things, it's too many things, it's not like, “Oh, she met a chef and she married him and that was great.” That's a story people can wrap their noggin around, right? 

But oh, wait, no, there's cancer. “Oh, oh, they're two cultures, Ok? Yeah, this is complicating it even more.” And then it just kind of went on and on. 

That's the energy that I brought to bare when I sat down to say, “Let me try to see if I can craft a narrative, a book, not just a single essay, but like a book from this.” And I said, Let me, having never done this before, let me just write the best book I can write for right now. I'm a first-time writer and we just write the best book I can write right now. And then I set my life up in such a way to kind of give myself the best shot at that. I kind of had to pare some things back to make space because I knew I was taking on a big endeavor. It was a very personal endeavor. 

And often when I was writing the book, I would have fights with my book, like, why did I ever think I could do this? Like, I don't understand where this is going. I'm like, one minute, I'm talking about being at a bar in Florence and like listening to David Bowie. And then the next minute, I'm making lentil soup, and then I'm suddenly in East Texas... Like, what is this thing I'm trying to write and it vexed me? Right. 

So you said, like this year, trying to wrap your heart and mind and you know the things you know about craft around all these words and events and memories and make history together. And so I got to a place where I thought, “Ok, you've done that. I succeeded.” 

It goes out into the world and shakin’ in my boots as it goes out into the world, because now it's not just me. I wrote the book, the room I’m in right now is where I pretty much wrote the book, here in my bedroom, in my car when my daughter was like, you know, at volleyball practice or, you know, whatever. I wrote the book on airplanes. I kind of like whenever the book wanted to come out, I was just, I made myself ready and available to receive it, you know, and to shape it. And it was very personal, very intimate, and I didn't talk about it with anybody. You know, I maybe told five people I was writing a book. You don’t go around being like, “Hey, I'm writing a book.” Well, you know, you just kind of get into it. One: because I thought, if I fall flat on my face, I don't want the whole world to know about it. And I have to be accountable to this. It's a personal endeavor. 

And then it did the thing that it did in the world, which it got picked up by Reese Witherspoon, Reese's Book Club and suddenly this very personal, intimate, private experience is now very, very public. People often think, well, that should be fine for you because you have a career as an actor and you're used to being in front of people. But those are someone else's words. That's someone else's story. I'm just sort of the, you know, the creative vessel and character who is bringing it to life. 

But suddenly, I was being asked to sort of speak now about my book, kind of, you know, the way I am now and from there Netflix came along and, you know, Netflix came along and now it's being made into a series and I'm adapting it with my sister. 

And so your question, my long way around is that what was a personal individual experience became very much a family experience again, in a different way because my sister and I adapted the book. She was right beside me through 80-90% of the lived experiences that I talk about in the book. And so for us to put our heads together as creative people, but also as the people who, you know, lived the events and adapt it, brought up a lot again. 

And I think we both have had to take care of ourselves through this process because in order to share about something and in order to write it or to recraft it, you have to travel back into it. And so it's been lovely to travel back into it with my sister because I'm doing it with a partner who I implicitly trust. We have the same sort of creative sort of sensibilities and language and approach, but we also have had to be very intentional about how we care for each other through the process.

Audra: I can just imagine and just feeling into this, I'm wondering what that self-care has looked like for you, if that surprised you, that facet of it. And I'm wondering if anything else surprised you? If it surprised you that this story really coming into the world, which is something that it sounds like it was not fully expected, if your feelings that came out from that also surprised you. 

Tembi: Yeah, it's been a mosaic of feelings. It has been everything from pure. I mean, every day I literally wake up like in this immense state of wonder, gratitude, and quasi disbelief. I'm like, “Wait, how did I get here?” And then I go open, I'm here, open, I'm here. And oh, what wonder is this? And from that place, I go forth and say—well, when I wrote the book, I said, “Let me write the best book I am capable of writing.” With adapting it for series for Netflix it's been a similar process. It's like, let us make the best series we're capable of making right now, for what we think the world needs right now. 

The fact that we began the writers’ room in 2019, the Fall of 2019, and I think you can see where I'm going with this right. We're in the writers’ room and we were about to break episode, there's eight episodes. Initially, there were going to be 10, but we were about to break, I think the second to the final episode and we got that call that said, “Everybody go home. We're done.” And we kept writing for a while as a team until we sort of had all the episodes laid out. 

And then everything went quiet as it all, as the world went quiet. And then Netflix returned to us and said, “We're ready to make the show.” So we've made the show. We've written the show, in the pandemic, and now we've produced and filmed it in the pandemic, so the self-care is happening on a couple of levels. There's the personal care of like, okay, we're the people who lived with this. We're being to some degree, not to some degree, off to a large degree entering back into those spaces. And when you write it on the page, it's one thing, but when you see it on set and you're like, wait, oh, in the 3D, this is it. This is what I lived.  But now there are other people playing the parts and you know, and so my sister and I would often turn to each other and just go, “Holy cow, what is happening?” And it has been truly beautiful and humbling. 

And every day we say, well, we've been given the privilege of this moment, of this opportunity. What can we do with it and how can we help to serve the world? And I know that feels like a big and lofty expanse, but I don't think you can write a show about love, grief, death, dying, and family and then produce it in the pandemic without asking yourself how can I serve the world right now? You know this isn't like a “Hey, let's tell the story to be just as fun.” No, it's like, “Let's share this story because.” 

And we really crafted the series without intentionality. I mean, when you pull, we had seven writers in the writers’ room together, and we're all bringing our lived experiences to it. When you adapt a story, when you adapt a book, fiction or nonfiction, it has to live in a different medium. So things are going to change. It's going to be fictionalized in places. But certainly, when you bring a team of other humans in, each person is adding their story into the story. 

So we had people in the writers’ room who had lived, who had been caregivers, who had walked people up to their final days. We had people who had great culinary experiences in their background, people who studied in Italy, people who, you know, knew about adoption and immigrants. So like everybody's plugging into it, it becomes this collective human story that has the essence and sort of given circumstances of my story like it kind of, it stays true to the given circumstance. But then it's really everybody's story.

Audra: So powerfully shared. And you answered the next question that I had, you know, kind of I had this sense of what we could all hope to potentially experience or see from this story and I was wondering what your perspective on that of like how this would land for folks, you know, like what the hopes would be with that, but with the shared collective story that there are so many facets we can all identify with.

Tembi: That's the thing that is my prayer and wish for the series as we continue to sort of we're in the editing phase now. And as it when it lands on Netflix and I don't know what the date will be, but it'll be, you know, next year sometime that viewers will be, some part of it, will speak to them and ask them if they walk away from the series, asking themselves “What more love could I seed in the world?” 

Audra: I think we want to put a pin in that, put a pin in that quote. That is absolutely incredible. And that hits me really hard, that it's something that like coming from the childhood cancer journey, all of the work that we do, what we've shared, you know, I think we share in these hopes of what we share with the world. It's a powerful mission. 

Justin: What I love about this entire discussion here is everything you've hit on goes back to something you said at the beginning was that when you started to write this book, you were feeling into the universality of so many of your experiences. And I mean, really, you described how there was so much going into this book because so much has happened in your life, but at each point, it's so universal. I mean, so I've really identified with this childhood of a kind of uprootedness in your childhood and then the writing and your story really feels like a project of growing roots, of becoming rooted. And so I'm wondering if you can say more about this because this really came through so clear in your childhood. 

Tembi: Oh my gosh, Justin, thank you so much for that, because, you know, initially when I was sort of thinking about the book and I knew Sicily would be this character in the book, I knew that this place that I returned to each summer, those summers, especially the first, the book takes place, the first three summers after Saro passed when I go, but I continue to go. I kept asking myself, “What is that return about? Like, why is this place so important?” Yes, my mother-in-law is there, yes, I bring my daughter to be with her grandmother. Yes. It reminds me of my husband. Yes, the food is good. And yes, the Mediterranean Sea and all of those yes’s.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. 

Tembi: Yeah. Well, what about it for Tembi, like deep, deep, deep down inside. And the first thought I had was that grief is very dislocating. It's dislocating in time and space. I think, for me that is my, and I don't think it's an uncommon experience of grief. You know, my own home didn't feel like my own home anymore. My everything felt both the same and completely different, and it was very disorienting and dislocating. 

And so having a place to go to where I could just be an anchor myself, literally grounded me. And so I said, ok, I get that from the grief perspective, why Sicily is the grounding place to sort of anchor myself. But then I thought, what and it was really the point in the book when my mother in law gifted me land there, and I really spent a lot of time in the writing of the book trying to unpack why that touched me the way it did. At first, I was just like, it's a great gift, but no, it really hit me in a primal way. 

And I realized that there was this young part of me from early childhood. That child of divorce. Lots of moving around. Different family makeups, that had been looking for a kind and quality of home that was consistent, that was ever-present, that was unconditional and unwavering. And I didn't have an unhappy childhood. I had a childhood, not unlike many people, especially American children, you know? Other parts of the world, people who might, you know, live in the same place with the same nuclear family. I had, you know, I had my own experience and something about when I was writing the book and I connected those two, when I realized that receiving the gift of the land was so meaningful because I was someone who had longed for a kind of home.

 I started asking my other questions about what does it mean to have a home? And I realized I'd been looking for a home in my relationships. I had been looking for a home in so many places my whole life. And I realized, let me lean into that and sort of weave that through the book. At first, I thought, nobody's going to get that because it feels too esoteric. But I thought I'm going to try to make that connective tissue because I feel like there's a part of us that always wants to be seen, heard, and witnessed for our experience. 

And for me, as a grieved, newly grieving mother and widow, I wanted to be seen and witnessed for that experience, for having been a caregiver. And now that whole part of my identity is gone. I didn't know what to do with myself because I didn't have that to charge me each day. And so being in Sicily, being at my mother-in-law’s table, talking to her, which I write about a lot in the book, she was seeing me for all of those life experiences. And in our conversations, she sensed this person needs an anchor. She just needs an anchor in the world. 

And I think that that gesture, because I can't say it's not some big palatial like, you know, plot of land, and it's certainly not like, you know, “Under the Tuscan Sun” with like a gorgeous villa on rolling hills and, you know, cypress trees and groves and groves and groves of olive trees. None of that, right? It's a sloping plot of land, but it was the symbol of it and also the gift of it that rooted me. And I think we all need to be rooted.

Audra: That is so beautiful.

Justin: I keep coming back to the childhood portion of your book because I really resonate with this. And then when you said when you were 14 and writing in your journal like, oh man, you know. 

So, you know, there's so much universal there. And then as you grow up, as you come into the world, you start to and then you just described choosing your family like there's a biological family. And then there is the family that you choose. I want to know more about this process for you or your family of choice. You know, how you've brought this into your life up to the present day. 

Tembi: You know, if you'd asked me 10, 15, 20 years ago, like I didn't even have language for it. I just, whoever I could be my most authentic self with, I was like, I claim you, I'm not letting you go. I'm with you. You are my peeps. Like, from here to eternity, you are my peeps.

Like, if I feel that I can trust you, be witnessed, be seen, and be authentic with you in all my goofiness, in my expansion, in my dreams, and my sorrows, then I think we're a tribe. Let's call each other a tribe, you know? 

And so I have this sort of family of friends and of course, with Saro, one of the things about marrying someone of a different culture and we, you know, not of a shared mother tongue, is that we do have to really choose each other with a great deal of intentionality because you can't rely on like, “Oh my god, we grew up listening to the same music,” or like, “Oh yeah...we had none of the same shared stuff.” Like, I was like, what? Who are you playing music? What is that? That sounds insane. I hate it. You know, but we find these ways, so I guess I began to sort of have a practice. 

A felt sense that, “Oh, I can be myself with you,” and I feel like that's the best sort of to me, litmus test for who you choose to keep in your life, who you invite in and who you choose to pull into your inner circle. And by the way, those people don't have to look like you come from the same culture you did. They don't even have to speak the same language. It's like, that's the one thing about my life that I didn't know that many years ago, but I can unequivocally say that now, that I did…

Justin: When did you discover that?

Tembi: You know, I think I've discovered it along the way. I will say one of the things when it really became crystal clear and conscious for me was, again, in Sicily. There's someone in Sicily who—I will not say their name—they live in the town and we see each other once a year. My Sicilian is very bad. My Italian is decent, it used to be better. But as years go by without someone to practice to, it's like I have to like, you know, I click into it when I get there. 

But we don't like a lot of, and she speaks no English. And yet when we get together, we have the best time. And what I mean by that is we each can go to like we can just drop into our most authentic selves. I realize, like, “How do I carry on a relationship?” And I call it a relationship. We like WhatsApp a couple of times during the year, the intervening year, Christmas and Easter, and then I see her in the summer. It's one of the relationships I really value in my life, and I look forward to our connections. 

So I thought to myself, “Oh, this is that example of choosing family.” And you know, and maybe also just into your question about the childhood I always went to, because I changed schools so often I was thrown in with lots of different types of people and lots of different classes. You know, middle class, the rich, all of it, people who were the working poor, then different races, everything in my own family, they're sort of that hybrid of folks. 

And so I feel like I never was someone who could spend my life relying on, “Oh, we all have to come from those that had a similar set of circumstances in order to be each other.” And I also understood that sometimes I was closer with people who were not like me, that I work with people who are my own biological genetic family. So right there, that also to me, doesn't kind of matter. It doesn't matter.

Audra: Did it teach you or show you to trust something in yourself around energetic connection? It sounds like with this woman in Sicily, there is a deep, energetic right. It's beyond words. Did your childhood teach you how to tap into that? 

Tembi: I think it did. I think it did. It's funny in the way, you know, as I did it now and think about it, I do think there was that part of my young, very young self who was seeking a place to be all of who I was. And so I was the kid, very early on, I was like the only girl who would play with all the boys on the block and all the other girls were like, “Why are you doing that? You're not supposed to play with the boys.” And I was like, “They are more fun. Like that’s who I'm going to play with.” 

Audra: I can identify what that. 

Tembi: They want to play pirates and I want to be a pirate. As long as I could be the captain of the ship, I will be there, you know? Yeah, I was very much that kind of little kid. And so I do feel as though being all of who you are feels so good, that I kept seeking out that feeling. 

And I think I've just been seeking that feeling over and over again because some part of me understood that I could be more of who I was, I had more fun, I was more capacious in the world when I could just be me. 

And sometimes that just wasn't the people who were maybe, you know, my first cousins or in my family. It was like other people. And now I was like, “Oh, those people can be family as well.” 

Justin: So staying on this line or this idea around your authentic self, was there a shift or a transition when you became a mother? Was that you felt something happen with the core? 

Tembi: Totally. Because then I mean, one of the things about motherhood that happens is suddenly your heart is like going along and you're like, “I am a loving full person in this world and that feels great.” And suddenly you have a child and you are like, “Holy moly, I have so much love, it's like bursting from me and I don't know what to do.” And it's like I’m scared, like, what happens if I break the person like you? 

Suddenly, the stakes change for me. I became a mother through adoption, that kind of intentionality of saying, you little person that we get to spend our lives together. What a joyous gift that is. And now I have the privilege and honor of caring for your little heart. And that, for me, was a lot about wanting to, and I think this is very common for most parents is that we want to give our children the things that we didn't have. 

And I don't mean things as in objects, but I mean experiences and, we want to heal parts of ourselves that were a little bit broken and didn't quite fit and all those things, right? And so you sort of, this child comes into your life and suddenly you want to down with all of these things that you didn't get. And then you realize, “Oh, wait, they're on their own path and they're going to teach me as much as I might and I hope to teach them.” I always say what I hope to teach her. You know, how I hope to guide her. 

Justin: Tembi, was there an aha moment where you're like, “Oh, this person is not me, like they've got their own path?”

Tembi: Well, you know, one of the things I will say for sure about, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, but coming to parenthood through adoption, I was always clear about the fact that this child is a human that I get to share my life with. But she is not a replica of me. She did not literally come through this vessel, but we are in a joint, beautiful dance together and the best I can do is to honor the soul and individuality for who she is. 

Knowing that there are whole parts of who she is that will, it sounds strange to say, remain invisible to me. And what I mean by that is to say when you get older, like my child is a teen now, and clearly, I know now there are many parts of her life that will always remain invisible to me. It’s literally set up that way for a reason. That's not a bad thing. B

ut I also think there was some part of me, you know, my mom still calls me that she's like, I don't know what's going on in your life, and I'm thinking to myself, “Mhhhmmmm.” 

I say that to say that, as I was aware of that even as she was an infant. I didn't have the, you know, often I think when you can look at your child and you see your eyes or you see your genetic code or you see your genetic imprint, there's this way that you kind of come to it seeing yourself. You know, I came to it seeing someone whose life was taken to discover and bloom in front of me. And that's a different experience. 

Audra: Yeah, it's also a mirage. And so I think that it's so powerful to hear of this from you because I feel like it's so much of our work as parents and that you entered into this relationship. This beautiful, loving motherhood relationship with this understanding is so powerful because for many of us, it's our work to do to kind of pull apart that veil and see that I've got to manage it, manage myself. 

Like you said, every single bit of healing and all of the things that I want to do through my child is my work to do and not through my child, right? Like I've gotta face it.

And it can be hard to see. It can be really hard to see through that. I think it's powerful to hear. And it sounds like to me, one thing that really strikes me is that you're such a courageous person, who strikes me as a cycle-breaker. 

Starting with your drive into your authenticity as a child and knowing you, as I've known you as somebody who has wanted to, it seems to me break the cycle of not talking about grief, of not talking about bereavement, of keeping these things in ourselves and keeping in silence. So I'd love to hear more about that and how maybe it even translates into your motherhood. But that feels like a theme to me that you've had the courage to say “There are a number of things that we're going to talk about and that need to be talked about in this world.” So I'd love to know more about this experience of grief and motherhood with your daughter and how you are bringing things to light.

Tembi: I can see that about myself now. I didn't. And in some ways, it's a lesson or an awareness that I've come to later in life. I never would have called myself like a challenger or a rabble-rouser or like, you know, get in there and mix it. But I think I quietly my whole life been poking at the bear kind of like food that makes sense to me. 

But I think you're right to me and often through my art and through my creativity because I think it was a space that I felt permission to play and to sort of push boundaries in. After Saro passed, the first thing I did before the book was create The Kitchen Widow. And that was it's a website that was really dedicated to caregiving and specifically families going through caregiving and grief.

 And that really was an outgrowth of me trying to find a way to bring my whole self as a newly widowed and a grieving mom to an act of service and had all of those things be an act of service. And I've always come to things from the service model, but that has really come from my grandparents, my grandparents top-down both sides, people of service in their community, right. Didn't talk about it and didn't walk around with the banner, you know, just quietly getting shit done. Excuse my French. Just out there serving, a very powerful model to witness growing up.

I think in some ways I saw the way you could affect change in the world, make a meaningful difference, gift people a kind of love simply by shifting things. And so one story I have is my grandmother. My mother's mom in East Texas was the kind of woman who often said to me, “If you see a need, fill it.” I've never forgotten that and I tried to this day to still live by that. And so to a large degree, the ways that my bravery, my courageousness has simply come out of “Well, what do I have the capacity to do right now? How might I serve this situation?” And you know, it's from that place that I take risks, you know, and often in service of love or anything else. And it's one of the things I'm learning now is to also do that in service to myself, my own care, my own family.


40:26

Tembi: When I first started writing, when I was taking classes at UCLA, I actually tried to write an essay about how with acting, it taught me about caregiving. And clearly, I did not do well in writing because nobody got what I was trying to say. But what I was essentially beginning to was this very idea; is that career, that showing up day after day, giving it your best, all the time, my integrity around my work and my artistry and that craftsmanship—I would not sacrifice that. I wouldn't do it half-assed. I had to be all in. But with the knowledge that I could be all-in, but it still might not be for me. It may not be my part and my time will come. 

And there's a kind of trust that you have to live with and that that helped me as a caregiver because it, well, we got to show up. We got to try all the things. We had to give it our friggin best. We got a turnover stone. We're going to really be fully open about it. We don't know. We just don't know. We don't know if this thing is going to work. We don't know how you're going to feel on this. 

We don't know if we make that plan to go on this trip that you'll be able to do it. But we're not going to not try. We're not going to not give our best and that mindset I got from being an actor. And so you call it resilience, and it was resilience.

Justin: And the parallels to parenthood of like, you could put yourself in it and your child is going to throw that food on the floor or they're going to refuse to do this or, you know, and then yet you come back day after day and you keep doing it. 

Tembi: Someone told me at—ah, I don’t know if you know, Soaring Spirits is an organization that serves the widowed people internationally, but also their families. And she said to me, the founder whose name is Michelle, she's actually up for a CNN Hero award. So yay, Michelle. But she told me, we were talking and she said, you know, with my daughter after her, she was newly remarried and she said her daughter was a teen and she was just pushing back and pushing back and pushing back. And she said the role is to put, they're going to slam the door. And what we have to do is just put our foot with our foot between the door and the door jam. 

You know, it's just, you just keep raising your foot in there over and over again, like, you're just not going to set it all the way. And that's kind of it. Like, that's a metaphor for love and showing up and saying, you know what, I'm never going to let the door fully shut. Like, I'll wedge my foot in there. I'll do it, you know, I'll be crippled and hurting but I’ll try!

Audra: I think this is so powerful because to me, it does speak to showing up and we're so outcomes based in our society that it's a really powerful testament to really, really showing up without that outcome or end in mind.

Tembi: Because we don't know. If you told me literally when they went, what was it for us, it was March 14, 2020, whenever they said, “Ok, go home. Oh yeah, this will be for two weeks.” Convinced, convinced it's going to be two weeks. I mean, literally, you couldn't wait that, you couldn’t move them off or that they just knew two weeks. 

So let me just say, we're all here to say we don't know jack, and you don't. Well, what we do know, the one thing we do know that I can say I know for sure, to quote Oprah, what I know for sure is that: how we show up and how we meet those moments in our lives make up the kind of quality of life we have, the kind of relationships we have and that's really the thing that we have say, that we have agency over.

I don't have agency over the weather, what my kid is going to do a week from now, where my career is, I don't have. What I have agency over is how I'm going to show up each day. And for me, that comes back to I find I work best when I come to the table with my most humble, grateful, and loving self. And by the way, that is a practice I have come to. 

So when I'm grumpy, stuff isn’t going the way I want it to go, I'm irritated, I'm exhausted. The prayer, the wish, the desire, label it whatever you want, for me is let me bring my most humble, grateful, and loving self to this. Because sometimes, like my personality is keyed up and I'm irritated and friggin don't want to deal with something or this is a challenge, or it's asking more of me than I'm capable of or I'm insecure about it, or I just don't know. So then when I feel that I just say, “Ok, what is my most grateful, loving, and humble response to this moment?” And from that, I don't know what it will look like, but it'll be better than if I didn’t.

Audra: Yeah, so you take a pause, you take a pause and you ask yourself that grounding question. And to me, that reminds me of one of my favorites, I feel like a lighthouse for me, has been the work of Viktor Frankl, A Man's Search for Meaning. And that concept that our last enduring freedom is our freedom to choose how we respond to any point of stimulus. That's what I'm hearing from you. And the power of it, the power of being and why is it in this society we are taught that if you don't have an immediate come back response that you get in the water? 

Tembi: You know what, because that is an emotionally immature cultural response to the human experience. Because the reality is, no, we can't. And it's funny, you know, I talk a lot, going back to the book, you know, my mother-in-law who has been one of my great teachers about just life. 

And one of the things you know, she often said was, I'd be like, “Ok, well…” as simple as “I'm going to go get bread” and” I'll get some cheese and I'll be back at this time.” And she will literally respond to me “if God wants.” And I’d be like oh my God, this is such Sicilian pathos here. What the hell. If God wants? Like, no, I’m just going to get the bread, and the cheese and the olives.

Audra: I'm pretty sure. And she's like, “If God wants.” 

Tembi: So unpacking that, at the core of that message is, “Honey. We don't know, you could walk out that door and we don't know.” And it's baked into the cultural language. It breaks into how people perceive the world now. Some people call that fatalism. Some people, I mean, there are many words, and by the way, it can skew into that, but at its core is a sense that we don't know what the next moment might bring.

And so actually, if it's, you know, there's a kind of divine or unspoken or unseen, you know, guiding force that is at play here that we don't have complete human dominion over. So go get the bread and cheese and olives. Hope to see you back. But it's a good reminder. You know, it's such a good reminder to like, hold it lightly, and be grateful.

Audra: It's powerful. It's a powerful reminder. And I wonder if your grief, the grief you carry this season in your life has in many ways or in some ways given you, I mean, you've walked, I can only imagine that significant not only pain and discomfort, but really having to rest with and sit in that space of the unknowns from moment to moment. And I think of you deeply with that, and it makes me think when you talk about giving birth to the show through COVID, how you came into COVID with a whole different understanding of the world and of this project of living from this perspective.

Tembi: Totally. And I mean, Audra, I'm sure you as well. I mean, any of us who walked the path of lifelong, life-threatening illness, who have lived at the frontlines of caregiving, who have interface with medical systems and hospital systems, and have tried to navigate mysterious symptoms, unknown outcomes. Like if you've lived that and that is your day-to-day. 

When COVID came along, I was like, “Oh, the rest of the world is just, it's like my experience is now global.” 

And by the way, the scale of that is actually too much for the human heart to hold. I mean, it's hard enough to hold it in an individual life. You know, I think it's why people are often, you know, hospital-phobic. I had friends with that when Saro was ill who were like, “I would love to come. I just can't come into the hospital. I just can't come visit because I can't walk into the hospital.” 

My first response was, “Oh my God, get over yourself, just come visit.” But ultimately, you know, what I've come to understand from a more empathetic place now is that, oh, what that really is, sure, the deeper fears about life, death, the unknown, the what it triggers in people. So when we were all living through COVID. It was like that spread across the globe. Like that was the energy of that was so intense. We were never meant to experience that on a global scale. 

Audra: And to be aware of the global scale, right?

Tembi: And to be aware of it. I mean, it was beyond. And so for those of us who I was both being retriggered by my own personal experiences, like over and over again, my old fears of like, Oh my gosh, what happens if we're going to? But then watching it said it was a great deal. So then to be still in the middle of all of that, masked, you know, with all the COVID tests, every and then I try to take a troop of 200 people into production every day for 12-14 hours a day and make a TV show. Was no small thing, no small thing. 

And the ways in which the subject matter of what we were filming and what story we're seeking to tell touched every individual crew member on that set. So it wasn't just the story that was playing out on screen with the actors, with the costumes and wardrobe and the given circumstance. But there were people who were our prop masters, who were our wardrobe designers, who were hairstylists who were lighting people. 

Everybody's had a life. Everybody knows someone. Everybody has a mom or brother, sister, a child, an uncle, a friend who has walked a path. And so suddenly being on set would bring that up. 

And so I was as the creator and as a producer and as the writer sort of aware of both the ways in which my own stuff was coming out, but also the ways in which we're having to wrap our hearts and minds around the whole troop of people now because we're all in this big human experience together. And some days it was like, let's just send love and light to everybody here on the set because we are trying to do something really brave right now in unprecedented circumstances.

Audra: That will only radiate from there. And I'm thinking put that on the world stage where I feel the fear, distrust of the government, the political aspects of it, the vitriol against the health care system and vaccines and change and all of that. What I'm seeing in that is grief, unacknowledged grief, pain, fear.

Tembi: Completely. I have been saying for years and I think we ought we talk about it now. By the way, I don't claim it as my own original idea, but it was something that an idea I came across very early in my grief, specifically in communities who lacked access to proper grief counseling services were able to take off after that, I had the privilege of time after Saro passed to care for myself. That is a privilege and a gift. 

Most people do not have that and particularly in certain underserved communities, and that unexpressed grief becomes a medical crisis. It shows up as diabetes. It shows up as anxiety. It shows up as depression. And so that unexpressed grief has many faces and in this a public health crisis. It is a public health crisis. When I see the enraged person doing whatever out in the world, supermarket, road, you know, wherever I'm like, “Um, there's some stuff going on underneath all of that.”

Audra: Trauma trigger, right? Whatever, whatever that might be. Right. Unaddressed, unacknowledged, unseen, unheard.

Tembi: Unheard, unseen. And by the way, because there were days you and I, you know, I touch on this a little bit in the book. Early on in my grief, I felt like an insane person. I felt so untethered. So literally every particle of my physical form was like floating outside of me. It felt so strange to be alive in the world when I was in so much pain, and the person who was my person was no longer here. 

If that made me feel so quote-unquote crazy, if you will, or outside of myself and I have the resource of time. I had therapy. I went to grief counseling. I had close family and friends. I had people leaving soup on my door every day. I had a career that could wait for me. I had the privilege of all of that and I still felt as unmoored as I did. 

Imagine the human, imagine the person, which is the majority of our society who does not have that level of care. So the one thing the pandemic has taught us is it allowed us to give it a space and public conversations about this. You know, when we were talking about this five, six years ago, we were like, over in a corner. You know, just talking about it, like trying to go, “Hey world. Pay attention to this thing because it's kind of like in the human experience and we all need to be dealing with it.” 

And when the pandemic hit, I think we all were able to acknowledge that in a new and deeper way, and the question remains for us as a society and as a globe, will we keep the conversation going? Will we enact change that makes the path easier? 

You said something so wise to me many years ago, and I've never forgotten it. You said, “We, with the work of MaxLove, the idea is that we want to make the path easier for the people who come behind us.” I mean those are not your exact words, but the sentiment. That's what I heard and that has always stayed with me, always stayed with me. 

And so my question to all of us as a society across the globe is, will we make it easier for the generations who are going to come behind us? Or will we sit deaf, mute, blind, you know, dumb to our present reality, continue the status quo and not really change things. And that can seem so big and seems so large and it is. But it’s also super micro. You can do it on a daily basis in your own life and in your own community. It has exponential things that there is nothing. 

The pandemic taught us that too because I will tell you, you know, to get political for five seconds. What I saw was not far from my home, a block away, people taking to the streets and mass protests for things that did not feel right to them anymore. And so whereas before people have been dormant and willing to sort of go along to get along, willing to not really plugin or turn a cheek or turn a deaf ear to the outcries of their fellow citizens, suddenly they couldn't. And so we know that and that happened with micro-changes with a big catalyst, big catalyst. 

The catalyst of not just the pandemic, but violence enacted by the people who are tasked to protect us. But we saw what happens when we do really, really, really stand up at the individual level. And so I say, will we continue to do that around this conversation, basic health care, and mental services for those folks, when we are grieving. 

No one is going to get to this life without losing someone. You just won't. You will at some point. I saw my own health decline and change, meaning I was more anxious. Nutrition was really hard for me. You know, I was in and out of life. I just, I couldn't sleep. All of those things have a net effect on your health. So they become a public health crisis, not just a mental health crisis, but actually, you know, a public health crisis.

Audra: It's, I think, a perfect way to kind of close this out for at least today. It really speaks to how as we start to show up, as we start to break the cycles and seek change in our own lives, which starts with our work. And it starts with how we show up in the world and show up with those immediately around us and then into our community. We become paradigm shifters. Our communities really start to make change, and I can't agree with you more that this is a part of the COVID, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, our response to injustice and inequity where I was raised in a time of silence. I was raised in a time when people said, This isn't our business and we're coming to learn, this is our business. This is all of our business.

Tembi: It’s all of our business. Every day we are out here co-creating the world we deem acceptable to live in. So are we co-creating a world that we say, it is acceptable to wear every day that we don't do something or we do something? We are co-creating a world that we all will live in and that our children will live in and our grandchildren. And that is everything from the climate to what is happening politically, to what is happening socially and economically. It is top to bottom. 

And I, you know, that idea that we cannot be siloed and be a unified nation and people all with, you know, our hearts beating and pulsing as one global being who is just trying to like, move through this life on the planet for the short time that we're here.

Audra: Simultaneously, you and I right now. 

Tembi: Right. 

Audra: It's a blip on the timeline, right.

Tembi: Yeah. Yeah.

Audra: But, this is it. This is it. This is what we have. 

Tembi: This is what we have. 

Audra: Yeah. And this is what we have to give and to bring and to share and to build. And it is on us. And to hear this from you, to hear this all come together in this powerful way, I'm hearing the most powerful, impassioned, loving, grace-filled call to action from you. And this is a part of your power, just one facet of your power. And you still live full tilt and the part of that power so that you bring us in and that you bring to the world. You bring your experiences to the world. 

And I think you show that we can bring voice without vitriol. We can bring power without. I don't know how to put it, but it's just the way that you're able to kind of like help, folks see, we're all a part of this, and it's incumbent on all of us to show up. Now let's do it. Let's start with our little steps at home. Let's start here, how we respond in every given, any sticky, difficult situation and we build from there.

Tembi: And do. Practice that discomfort right in your own home and space. Practice it right here. Try it on.

Audra: It's beautiful. So I know that you've got to go. And we could talk probably for another few podcasts. And I know we'll get to do it again. And Justin always ends with three questions. I'm just going to end with one because I feel like we've had such a powerful, really beautiful end to this.

Tembi: I hope I'm ready.  

Audra: What Post-it would you put on every parent's fridge today if you could give the gift of a Post-it note message? What would it be? 

Tembi: Oh my gosh. Oh my God. Oh my God. “Just listen.” Just listen. That is the post. It's the thing. Yeah. Yes. Just listen, because there are times when I know I'm certainly guilty of it. And if my beautiful child were there with me, she would absolutely affirm that sometimes you're talking and then you're going and you're really moving at your point what you need to get out there because you feel so much like I got to get this across to them, I just gotta let them know this thing. When in fact, I learned and I continue to learn that in the act of listening. True, true listening.

Something bigger and more expansive than what I was thinking is probably right here in front of us. But together, if I'm listening, there's unison and actually, something better will emerge. So I would say often just listen. Just listen, because it's so kids are finding their words. They're still and I mean, literally, they're finding their words. And I don't mean, like, you know, we say, let's use your words when they're like three or four, use your words. But you can still say that's like a 17-year-old. It's like, “Really? What is that feeling? No, no. Talk to me more about that.” 

Audra: Use curiosity instead of, you know, how as parents, we often walk into this very often how we're raised, right? Like by, oh, you feel this way, we try to give them words, right? You're feeling this way. And when they're little, there is a way of describing emotions. I'm not. I'm not speaking of that, but it's more like I have experiences trying to ascribe things, put words in their mouth. Like, I know what you mean. And deploying curiosity to give them room to speak their truth. 

Tembi: Absolutely. And by the way, their truth ain't my truth. 

Audra: Yes. Yes, yes. 

Tembi: And like nothing more than being, you know, and I write this in the book being the parent of a grieving child where she — it's sort of like, “Your experience is not my experience, Mom.” 

And she pretty much told me that at seven, she was hardcore. And she said—look, I mean, when I say hardcore, she was her authentic and most honest self—when she said, “You have not lost your father.”

Audra: I remember when you first told me this.

Tembi: Right? She said, so you don't know she was seven. So right there, like I could have been like, Well, I think, you know, you know. No, she leveled it, she said, Let's get real clear. And so that taught me, “Oh, I need to zip it. Observe. Observe, you need to listen because she's having a different lived experience than I am. And the best I can do is support her in her experience, not try to put on to her an experience that is comforting to me.”

Audra: Oh, that's it. That's it. That is the core truth of us, not a, we're not able to sit in our discomfort. We want this to be more comfortable for us, we’re triggered. We don't know why we're activated. We don't want them to be. We don't want all of that. All of the feelings, it's too uncomfortable. It's too difficult. So how can I make myself more comfortable? 

Tembi: Exactly. 

Audra: Oh, it's powerful. 

Tembi: So just listen, just listen. You know what? Hold on. Ok, Audra, this is crazy. You just said what's in a post-it note? I did not know you were going to ask that question. You released the questions ahead of time. I didn't read them. I didn't know you were gonna ask them. 

But guess what? Guess what? Guess what? This is actually sitting on my desk because I'm doing it. So here, guess what? I'm going to write on this post-it note. Just listen. I'm going to you know, Dr. Take-my-own-medicine. I'm going to write. Just listen. And I'm going to put it on my fridge. 

Audra: Will you take a picture and send it to us, please, when you do it?  It's so powerful. I was coming to mind and I know we've got to go, is that the mom in “Never Have I Ever.” My daughter and I flip for this show. It is her favorite show. The mom’s leaning into this, isn't she? 

Tembi: Elise, first of all, I love playing Elise. I love Elise with all my heart. She is, literally, she's every mom, she is and she's like, “Ok, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to try really hard.” Like she is, you know, she is that part of so many parents. And sometimes Elise just needs to listen, and she knows she does. It's hard for her. But she will try.  

Audra: The end of last season, Elise got it.

Tembi: I know, I know, and I'm coming back for season three, so I don't know what's going to be up in their lives for season three, but I'm excited to find out. 

Audra: Cannot wait and thank you for bringing so much joy and power and presence, light, your authenticity, all of the things you bring into our home without knowing it through our television and through the book, through our television again on Netflix is going to happen. You are, and I mean this in every sense across cultures that I could, a true blessing in this world. You bless this world by bringing yourself authentically forward, by bringing your experiences, by bringing your truth, what you see, all of it. It's just an honor to be here in this, in this blip of a moment in time with you and thank you for sharing your precious time with us.

Tembi: Let me tell you, I stand hard for you. As the kids say these days.

Audra: I thank you for that. We'll use it later. 

Tembi: Yeah, I do. I do. And so it is my honor and privilege and pleasure to be here. So let's do it again. 

Audra: I'd love to thank you again.

Tembi: Have a beautiful I'm blessed day. Thank you. 

Transcript highlights


2:34

Audra: Ok, so Justin makes the questions, and I mess it all up with conversation, so…

Tembi: I love it. 

Justin: Yes. It is a great dynamic. I try to keep the train on the tracks.

Audra: I try to derail us constantly. 

Justin: Visit all the small towns off the road, which is a great, yeah, it's a great mix. 

Audra: But I want to talk about From Scratch. I really want to. I know it's not what we're starting with here in our questions, but I feel so honored that you let us in on social media. You let all of us in on your journey. It feels so big to me. It feels so beautiful on so many levels because you have been so kind from the beginning of Max's diagnosis, really to welcome me into discussions of grief, to welcome me into your story, to you have helped me dig deeper into my journey and not just understand a search for a cure or not, you know, in a more dynamic view. 

Your book is gorgeous. It takes us through such a powerful life journey. Plus, I mean, you immerse us, right? And now you're bringing this to life in a show. Can you tell us about this process for you?

Tembi: First of all, everything you said, for whatever reason, in the way you lined up, I found myself getting super emotional just listening to it because I have been so in it and in the writing and then the sharing and then the adapting and then the filming, and I don't sometimes slow down to sort of, I'm not able to have that 30,000-foot view of the experience. I'm just sort of in it. And so every now and then when I take a breath and listen and like you, just that was a gift. Thank you for that share because it just made me sort of drop in and realize I have been doing that. 

Like, I have been intentionally, it sounds absurd because I wrote a book, but I have been intentionally sharing. But I have, and you know, it's been a ride. Unlike any other, it has expanded. You're talking about expanding. I have expanded far beyond my known capacity. Like I, I thought, I have capacity. Ok, I'm a person who, you know, if you take 10 people, probably out of the 10, on average I'm in, the two of us have got like a lot of capacity... It’s taught me that I've got capacity. 

And so, you know, it's been a beautiful experience, it's been a loving experience, it's been a hard experience, and in many ways at times it's mirrored my grief. But it's also mirrored, it's also spawned growth. Like the two things are always side by side. They just always sitting right next to each other. 

Audra: What's coming up for me is like hearing about the process for you of really bringing your book to screen and at the same time, I'm starting to think your sister is involved in this. And did she experience your grief differently? 

I'm going to cry thinking about this, like your daughter experiences differently? Like, it seems really big to me to bring not only the book to the world but then to bring this into the form that you're bringing it into now. So, yeah, keep exploring. 

Tembi: Well, I will say, listen, the writing and I could talk. I love talking about writing, and I wish I could say I was, you know, I've written one book, but I've been writing my whole life. So in a way not knowing, not with any professional intention or goal. It was just, for my own edification, growth, sorting through, like all the mental chatter and those doing that even as early as 14, you know, when I was like 14 and hating on my parents, I would like...to some degree, all of that was me trying to process my world and my lived experience. I've been doing that since I was really young, but it was only in my 40s and after a large life experience, being a parent and married and a caregiver and then widowed that I was like, “Wait a minute, I actually want to sort of not only document but sort of craft this life that I've had, like for myself.”

You know, writing is often making sense of a lived experience, especially with memoir, right? Memoir is literally about making sense and giving a kind of narrative to big life experiences. So that's what I was doing, you know, and I felt it was worthy of sharing because I knew that elements of my story were so universal. Like, I am clearly not the only one. 

But the things that made it kind of magical for me were that many people don't have all those things at one time, like, you know what I mean? I had this experience of a decade of full-tilt living, like full tilt everything. It was like motherhood and cancer and adoption and acting and two languages and food and college. I was like, “Whoa,” and I was like, “Oh, that's my soup,” right? And my fear when I started to write it was that no one would get it. It was like, it's too many things, it's too many things, it's not like, “Oh, she met a chef and she married him and that was great.” That's a story people can wrap their noggin around, right? 

But oh, wait, no, there's cancer. “Oh, oh, they're two cultures, Ok? Yeah, this is complicating it even more.” And then it just kind of went on and on. 

That's the energy that I brought to bare when I sat down to say, “Let me try to see if I can craft a narrative, a book, not just a single essay, but like a book from this.” And I said, Let me, having never done this before, let me just write the best book I can write for right now. I'm a first-time writer and we just write the best book I can write right now. And then I set my life up in such a way to kind of give myself the best shot at that. I kind of had to pare some things back to make space because I knew I was taking on a big endeavor. It was a very personal endeavor. 

And often when I was writing the book, I would have fights with my book, like, why did I ever think I could do this? Like, I don't understand where this is going. I'm like, one minute, I'm talking about being at a bar in Florence and like listening to David Bowie. And then the next minute, I'm making lentil soup, and then I'm suddenly in East Texas... Like, what is this thing I'm trying to write and it vexed me? Right. 

So you said, like this year, trying to wrap your heart and mind and you know the things you know about craft around all these words and events and memories and make history together. And so I got to a place where I thought, “Ok, you've done that. I succeeded.” 

It goes out into the world and shakin’ in my boots as it goes out into the world, because now it's not just me. I wrote the book, the room I’m in right now is where I pretty much wrote the book, here in my bedroom, in my car when my daughter was like, you know, at volleyball practice or, you know, whatever. I wrote the book on airplanes. I kind of like whenever the book wanted to come out, I was just, I made myself ready and available to receive it, you know, and to shape it. And it was very personal, very intimate, and I didn't talk about it with anybody. You know, I maybe told five people I was writing a book. You don’t go around being like, “Hey, I'm writing a book.” Well, you know, you just kind of get into it. One: because I thought, if I fall flat on my face, I don't want the whole world to know about it. And I have to be accountable to this. It's a personal endeavor. 

And then it did the thing that it did in the world, which it got picked up by Reese Witherspoon, Reese's Book Club and suddenly this very personal, intimate, private experience is now very, very public. People often think, well, that should be fine for you because you have a career as an actor and you're used to being in front of people. But those are someone else's words. That's someone else's story. I'm just sort of the, you know, the creative vessel and character who is bringing it to life. 

But suddenly, I was being asked to sort of speak now about my book, kind of, you know, the way I am now and from there Netflix came along and, you know, Netflix came along and now it's being made into a series and I'm adapting it with my sister. 

And so your question, my long way around is that what was a personal individual experience became very much a family experience again, in a different way because my sister and I adapted the book. She was right beside me through 80-90% of the lived experiences that I talk about in the book. And so for us to put our heads together as creative people, but also as the people who, you know, lived the events and adapt it, brought up a lot again. 

And I think we both have had to take care of ourselves through this process because in order to share about something and in order to write it or to recraft it, you have to travel back into it. And so it's been lovely to travel back into it with my sister because I'm doing it with a partner who I implicitly trust. We have the same sort of creative sort of sensibilities and language and approach, but we also have had to be very intentional about how we care for each other through the process.

Audra: I can just imagine and just feeling into this, I'm wondering what that self-care has looked like for you, if that surprised you, that facet of it. And I'm wondering if anything else surprised you? If it surprised you that this story really coming into the world, which is something that it sounds like it was not fully expected, if your feelings that came out from that also surprised you. 

Tembi: Yeah, it's been a mosaic of feelings. It has been everything from pure. I mean, every day I literally wake up like in this immense state of wonder, gratitude, and quasi disbelief. I'm like, “Wait, how did I get here?” And then I go open, I'm here, open, I'm here. And oh, what wonder is this? And from that place, I go forth and say—well, when I wrote the book, I said, “Let me write the best book I am capable of writing.” With adapting it for series for Netflix it's been a similar process. It's like, let us make the best series we're capable of making right now, for what we think the world needs right now. 

The fact that we began the writers’ room in 2019, the Fall of 2019, and I think you can see where I'm going with this right. We're in the writers’ room and we were about to break episode, there's eight episodes. Initially, there were going to be 10, but we were about to break, I think the second to the final episode and we got that call that said, “Everybody go home. We're done.” And we kept writing for a while as a team until we sort of had all the episodes laid out. 

And then everything went quiet as it all, as the world went quiet. And then Netflix returned to us and said, “We're ready to make the show.” So we've made the show. We've written the show, in the pandemic, and now we've produced and filmed it in the pandemic, so the self-care is happening on a couple of levels. There's the personal care of like, okay, we're the people who lived with this. We're being to some degree, not to some degree, off to a large degree entering back into those spaces. And when you write it on the page, it's one thing, but when you see it on set and you're like, wait, oh, in the 3D, this is it. This is what I lived.  But now there are other people playing the parts and you know, and so my sister and I would often turn to each other and just go, “Holy cow, what is happening?” And it has been truly beautiful and humbling. 

And every day we say, well, we've been given the privilege of this moment, of this opportunity. What can we do with it and how can we help to serve the world? And I know that feels like a big and lofty expanse, but I don't think you can write a show about love, grief, death, dying, and family and then produce it in the pandemic without asking yourself how can I serve the world right now? You know this isn't like a “Hey, let's tell the story to be just as fun.” No, it's like, “Let's share this story because.” 

And we really crafted the series without intentionality. I mean, when you pull, we had seven writers in the writers’ room together, and we're all bringing our lived experiences to it. When you adapt a story, when you adapt a book, fiction or nonfiction, it has to live in a different medium. So things are going to change. It's going to be fictionalized in places. But certainly, when you bring a team of other humans in, each person is adding their story into the story. 

So we had people in the writers’ room who had lived, who had been caregivers, who had walked people up to their final days. We had people who had great culinary experiences in their background, people who studied in Italy, people who, you know, knew about adoption and immigrants. So like everybody's plugging into it, it becomes this collective human story that has the essence and sort of given circumstances of my story like it kind of, it stays true to the given circumstance. But then it's really everybody's story.

Audra: So powerfully shared. And you answered the next question that I had, you know, kind of I had this sense of what we could all hope to potentially experience or see from this story and I was wondering what your perspective on that of like how this would land for folks, you know, like what the hopes would be with that, but with the shared collective story that there are so many facets we can all identify with.

Tembi: That's the thing that is my prayer and wish for the series as we continue to sort of we're in the editing phase now. And as it when it lands on Netflix and I don't know what the date will be, but it'll be, you know, next year sometime that viewers will be, some part of it, will speak to them and ask them if they walk away from the series, asking themselves “What more love could I seed in the world?” 

Audra: I think we want to put a pin in that, put a pin in that quote. That is absolutely incredible. And that hits me really hard, that it's something that like coming from the childhood cancer journey, all of the work that we do, what we've shared, you know, I think we share in these hopes of what we share with the world. It's a powerful mission. 

Justin: What I love about this entire discussion here is everything you've hit on goes back to something you said at the beginning was that when you started to write this book, you were feeling into the universality of so many of your experiences. And I mean, really, you described how there was so much going into this book because so much has happened in your life, but at each point, it's so universal. I mean, so I've really identified with this childhood of a kind of uprootedness in your childhood and then the writing and your story really feels like a project of growing roots, of becoming rooted. And so I'm wondering if you can say more about this because this really came through so clear in your childhood. 

Tembi: Oh my gosh, Justin, thank you so much for that, because, you know, initially when I was sort of thinking about the book and I knew Sicily would be this character in the book, I knew that this place that I returned to each summer, those summers, especially the first, the book takes place, the first three summers after Saro passed when I go, but I continue to go. I kept asking myself, “What is that return about? Like, why is this place so important?” Yes, my mother-in-law is there, yes, I bring my daughter to be with her grandmother. Yes. It reminds me of my husband. Yes, the food is good. And yes, the Mediterranean Sea and all of those yes’s.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. 

Tembi: Yeah. Well, what about it for Tembi, like deep, deep, deep down inside. And the first thought I had was that grief is very dislocating. It's dislocating in time and space. I think, for me that is my, and I don't think it's an uncommon experience of grief. You know, my own home didn't feel like my own home anymore. My everything felt both the same and completely different, and it was very disorienting and dislocating. 

And so having a place to go to where I could just be an anchor myself, literally grounded me. And so I said, ok, I get that from the grief perspective, why Sicily is the grounding place to sort of anchor myself. But then I thought, what and it was really the point in the book when my mother in law gifted me land there, and I really spent a lot of time in the writing of the book trying to unpack why that touched me the way it did. At first, I was just like, it's a great gift, but no, it really hit me in a primal way. 

And I realized that there was this young part of me from early childhood. That child of divorce. Lots of moving around. Different family makeups, that had been looking for a kind and quality of home that was consistent, that was ever-present, that was unconditional and unwavering. And I didn't have an unhappy childhood. I had a childhood, not unlike many people, especially American children, you know? Other parts of the world, people who might, you know, live in the same place with the same nuclear family. I had, you know, I had my own experience and something about when I was writing the book and I connected those two, when I realized that receiving the gift of the land was so meaningful because I was someone who had longed for a kind of home.

 I started asking my other questions about what does it mean to have a home? And I realized I'd been looking for a home in my relationships. I had been looking for a home in so many places my whole life. And I realized, let me lean into that and sort of weave that through the book. At first, I thought, nobody's going to get that because it feels too esoteric. But I thought I'm going to try to make that connective tissue because I feel like there's a part of us that always wants to be seen, heard, and witnessed for our experience. 

And for me, as a grieved, newly grieving mother and widow, I wanted to be seen and witnessed for that experience, for having been a caregiver. And now that whole part of my identity is gone. I didn't know what to do with myself because I didn't have that to charge me each day. And so being in Sicily, being at my mother-in-law’s table, talking to her, which I write about a lot in the book, she was seeing me for all of those life experiences. And in our conversations, she sensed this person needs an anchor. She just needs an anchor in the world. 

And I think that that gesture, because I can't say it's not some big palatial like, you know, plot of land, and it's certainly not like, you know, “Under the Tuscan Sun” with like a gorgeous villa on rolling hills and, you know, cypress trees and groves and groves and groves of olive trees. None of that, right? It's a sloping plot of land, but it was the symbol of it and also the gift of it that rooted me. And I think we all need to be rooted.

Audra: That is so beautiful.

Justin: I keep coming back to the childhood portion of your book because I really resonate with this. And then when you said when you were 14 and writing in your journal like, oh man, you know. 

So, you know, there's so much universal there. And then as you grow up, as you come into the world, you start to and then you just described choosing your family like there's a biological family. And then there is the family that you choose. I want to know more about this process for you or your family of choice. You know, how you've brought this into your life up to the present day. 

Tembi: You know, if you'd asked me 10, 15, 20 years ago, like I didn't even have language for it. I just, whoever I could be my most authentic self with, I was like, I claim you, I'm not letting you go. I'm with you. You are my peeps. Like, from here to eternity, you are my peeps.

Like, if I feel that I can trust you, be witnessed, be seen, and be authentic with you in all my goofiness, in my expansion, in my dreams, and my sorrows, then I think we're a tribe. Let's call each other a tribe, you know? 

And so I have this sort of family of friends and of course, with Saro, one of the things about marrying someone of a different culture and we, you know, not of a shared mother tongue, is that we do have to really choose each other with a great deal of intentionality because you can't rely on like, “Oh my god, we grew up listening to the same music,” or like, “Oh yeah...we had none of the same shared stuff.” Like, I was like, what? Who are you playing music? What is that? That sounds insane. I hate it. You know, but we find these ways, so I guess I began to sort of have a practice. 

A felt sense that, “Oh, I can be myself with you,” and I feel like that's the best sort of to me, litmus test for who you choose to keep in your life, who you invite in and who you choose to pull into your inner circle. And by the way, those people don't have to look like you come from the same culture you did. They don't even have to speak the same language. It's like, that's the one thing about my life that I didn't know that many years ago, but I can unequivocally say that now, that I did…

Justin: When did you discover that?

Tembi: You know, I think I've discovered it along the way. I will say one of the things when it really became crystal clear and conscious for me was, again, in Sicily. There's someone in Sicily who—I will not say their name—they live in the town and we see each other once a year. My Sicilian is very bad. My Italian is decent, it used to be better. But as years go by without someone to practice to, it's like I have to like, you know, I click into it when I get there. 

But we don't like a lot of, and she speaks no English. And yet when we get together, we have the best time. And what I mean by that is we each can go to like we can just drop into our most authentic selves. I realize, like, “How do I carry on a relationship?” And I call it a relationship. We like WhatsApp a couple of times during the year, the intervening year, Christmas and Easter, and then I see her in the summer. It's one of the relationships I really value in my life, and I look forward to our connections. 

So I thought to myself, “Oh, this is that example of choosing family.” And you know, and maybe also just into your question about the childhood I always went to, because I changed schools so often I was thrown in with lots of different types of people and lots of different classes. You know, middle class, the rich, all of it, people who were the working poor, then different races, everything in my own family, they're sort of that hybrid of folks. 

And so I feel like I never was someone who could spend my life relying on, “Oh, we all have to come from those that had a similar set of circumstances in order to be each other.” And I also understood that sometimes I was closer with people who were not like me, that I work with people who are my own biological genetic family. So right there, that also to me, doesn't kind of matter. It doesn't matter.

Audra: Did it teach you or show you to trust something in yourself around energetic connection? It sounds like with this woman in Sicily, there is a deep, energetic right. It's beyond words. Did your childhood teach you how to tap into that? 

Tembi: I think it did. I think it did. It's funny in the way, you know, as I did it now and think about it, I do think there was that part of my young, very young self who was seeking a place to be all of who I was. And so I was the kid, very early on, I was like the only girl who would play with all the boys on the block and all the other girls were like, “Why are you doing that? You're not supposed to play with the boys.” And I was like, “They are more fun. Like that’s who I'm going to play with.” 

Audra: I can identify what that. 

Tembi: They want to play pirates and I want to be a pirate. As long as I could be the captain of the ship, I will be there, you know? Yeah, I was very much that kind of little kid. And so I do feel as though being all of who you are feels so good, that I kept seeking out that feeling. 

And I think I've just been seeking that feeling over and over again because some part of me understood that I could be more of who I was, I had more fun, I was more capacious in the world when I could just be me. 

And sometimes that just wasn't the people who were maybe, you know, my first cousins or in my family. It was like other people. And now I was like, “Oh, those people can be family as well.” 

Justin: So staying on this line or this idea around your authentic self, was there a shift or a transition when you became a mother? Was that you felt something happen with the core? 

Tembi: Totally. Because then I mean, one of the things about motherhood that happens is suddenly your heart is like going along and you're like, “I am a loving full person in this world and that feels great.” And suddenly you have a child and you are like, “Holy moly, I have so much love, it's like bursting from me and I don't know what to do.” And it's like I’m scared, like, what happens if I break the person like you? 

Suddenly, the stakes change for me. I became a mother through adoption, that kind of intentionality of saying, you little person that we get to spend our lives together. What a joyous gift that is. And now I have the privilege and honor of caring for your little heart. And that, for me, was a lot about wanting to, and I think this is very common for most parents is that we want to give our children the things that we didn't have. 

And I don't mean things as in objects, but I mean experiences and, we want to heal parts of ourselves that were a little bit broken and didn't quite fit and all those things, right? And so you sort of, this child comes into your life and suddenly you want to down with all of these things that you didn't get. And then you realize, “Oh, wait, they're on their own path and they're going to teach me as much as I might and I hope to teach them.” I always say what I hope to teach her. You know, how I hope to guide her. 

Justin: Tembi, was there an aha moment where you're like, “Oh, this person is not me, like they've got their own path?”

Tembi: Well, you know, one of the things I will say for sure about, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, but coming to parenthood through adoption, I was always clear about the fact that this child is a human that I get to share my life with. But she is not a replica of me. She did not literally come through this vessel, but we are in a joint, beautiful dance together and the best I can do is to honor the soul and individuality for who she is. 

Knowing that there are whole parts of who she is that will, it sounds strange to say, remain invisible to me. And what I mean by that is to say when you get older, like my child is a teen now, and clearly, I know now there are many parts of her life that will always remain invisible to me. It’s literally set up that way for a reason. That's not a bad thing. B

ut I also think there was some part of me, you know, my mom still calls me that she's like, I don't know what's going on in your life, and I'm thinking to myself, “Mhhhmmmm.” 

I say that to say that, as I was aware of that even as she was an infant. I didn't have the, you know, often I think when you can look at your child and you see your eyes or you see your genetic code or you see your genetic imprint, there's this way that you kind of come to it seeing yourself. You know, I came to it seeing someone whose life was taken to discover and bloom in front of me. And that's a different experience. 

Audra: Yeah, it's also a mirage. And so I think that it's so powerful to hear of this from you because I feel like it's so much of our work as parents and that you entered into this relationship. This beautiful, loving motherhood relationship with this understanding is so powerful because for many of us, it's our work to do to kind of pull apart that veil and see that I've got to manage it, manage myself. 

Like you said, every single bit of healing and all of the things that I want to do through my child is my work to do and not through my child, right? Like I've gotta face it.

And it can be hard to see. It can be really hard to see through that. I think it's powerful to hear. And it sounds like to me, one thing that really strikes me is that you're such a courageous person, who strikes me as a cycle-breaker. 

Starting with your drive into your authenticity as a child and knowing you, as I've known you as somebody who has wanted to, it seems to me break the cycle of not talking about grief, of not talking about bereavement, of keeping these things in ourselves and keeping in silence. So I'd love to hear more about that and how maybe it even translates into your motherhood. But that feels like a theme to me that you've had the courage to say “There are a number of things that we're going to talk about and that need to be talked about in this world.” So I'd love to know more about this experience of grief and motherhood with your daughter and how you are bringing things to light.

Tembi: I can see that about myself now. I didn't. And in some ways, it's a lesson or an awareness that I've come to later in life. I never would have called myself like a challenger or a rabble-rouser or like, you know, get in there and mix it. But I think I quietly my whole life been poking at the bear kind of like food that makes sense to me. 

But I think you're right to me and often through my art and through my creativity because I think it was a space that I felt permission to play and to sort of push boundaries in. After Saro passed, the first thing I did before the book was create The Kitchen Widow. And that was it's a website that was really dedicated to caregiving and specifically families going through caregiving and grief.

 And that really was an outgrowth of me trying to find a way to bring my whole self as a newly widowed and a grieving mom to an act of service and had all of those things be an act of service. And I've always come to things from the service model, but that has really come from my grandparents, my grandparents top-down both sides, people of service in their community, right. Didn't talk about it and didn't walk around with the banner, you know, just quietly getting shit done. Excuse my French. Just out there serving, a very powerful model to witness growing up.

I think in some ways I saw the way you could affect change in the world, make a meaningful difference, gift people a kind of love simply by shifting things. And so one story I have is my grandmother. My mother's mom in East Texas was the kind of woman who often said to me, “If you see a need, fill it.” I've never forgotten that and I tried to this day to still live by that. And so to a large degree, the ways that my bravery, my courageousness has simply come out of “Well, what do I have the capacity to do right now? How might I serve this situation?” And you know, it's from that place that I take risks, you know, and often in service of love or anything else. And it's one of the things I'm learning now is to also do that in service to myself, my own care, my own family.


40:26

Tembi: When I first started writing, when I was taking classes at UCLA, I actually tried to write an essay about how with acting, it taught me about caregiving. And clearly, I did not do well in writing because nobody got what I was trying to say. But what I was essentially beginning to was this very idea; is that career, that showing up day after day, giving it your best, all the time, my integrity around my work and my artistry and that craftsmanship—I would not sacrifice that. I wouldn't do it half-assed. I had to be all in. But with the knowledge that I could be all-in, but it still might not be for me. It may not be my part and my time will come. 

And there's a kind of trust that you have to live with and that that helped me as a caregiver because it, well, we got to show up. We got to try all the things. We had to give it our friggin best. We got a turnover stone. We're going to really be fully open about it. We don't know. We just don't know. We don't know if this thing is going to work. We don't know how you're going to feel on this. 

We don't know if we make that plan to go on this trip that you'll be able to do it. But we're not going to not try. We're not going to not give our best and that mindset I got from being an actor. And so you call it resilience, and it was resilience.

Justin: And the parallels to parenthood of like, you could put yourself in it and your child is going to throw that food on the floor or they're going to refuse to do this or, you know, and then yet you come back day after day and you keep doing it. 

Tembi: Someone told me at—ah, I don’t know if you know, Soaring Spirits is an organization that serves the widowed people internationally, but also their families. And she said to me, the founder whose name is Michelle, she's actually up for a CNN Hero award. So yay, Michelle. But she told me, we were talking and she said, you know, with my daughter after her, she was newly remarried and she said her daughter was a teen and she was just pushing back and pushing back and pushing back. And she said the role is to put, they're going to slam the door. And what we have to do is just put our foot with our foot between the door and the door jam. 

You know, it's just, you just keep raising your foot in there over and over again, like, you're just not going to set it all the way. And that's kind of it. Like, that's a metaphor for love and showing up and saying, you know what, I'm never going to let the door fully shut. Like, I'll wedge my foot in there. I'll do it, you know, I'll be crippled and hurting but I’ll try!

Audra: I think this is so powerful because to me, it does speak to showing up and we're so outcomes based in our society that it's a really powerful testament to really, really showing up without that outcome or end in mind.

Tembi: Because we don't know. If you told me literally when they went, what was it for us, it was March 14, 2020, whenever they said, “Ok, go home. Oh yeah, this will be for two weeks.” Convinced, convinced it's going to be two weeks. I mean, literally, you couldn't wait that, you couldn’t move them off or that they just knew two weeks. 

So let me just say, we're all here to say we don't know jack, and you don't. Well, what we do know, the one thing we do know that I can say I know for sure, to quote Oprah, what I know for sure is that: how we show up and how we meet those moments in our lives make up the kind of quality of life we have, the kind of relationships we have and that's really the thing that we have say, that we have agency over.

I don't have agency over the weather, what my kid is going to do a week from now, where my career is, I don't have. What I have agency over is how I'm going to show up each day. And for me, that comes back to I find I work best when I come to the table with my most humble, grateful, and loving self. And by the way, that is a practice I have come to. 

So when I'm grumpy, stuff isn’t going the way I want it to go, I'm irritated, I'm exhausted. The prayer, the wish, the desire, label it whatever you want, for me is let me bring my most humble, grateful, and loving self to this. Because sometimes, like my personality is keyed up and I'm irritated and friggin don't want to deal with something or this is a challenge, or it's asking more of me than I'm capable of or I'm insecure about it, or I just don't know. So then when I feel that I just say, “Ok, what is my most grateful, loving, and humble response to this moment?” And from that, I don't know what it will look like, but it'll be better than if I didn’t.

Audra: Yeah, so you take a pause, you take a pause and you ask yourself that grounding question. And to me, that reminds me of one of my favorites, I feel like a lighthouse for me, has been the work of Viktor Frankl, A Man's Search for Meaning. And that concept that our last enduring freedom is our freedom to choose how we respond to any point of stimulus. That's what I'm hearing from you. And the power of it, the power of being and why is it in this society we are taught that if you don't have an immediate come back response that you get in the water? 

Tembi: You know what, because that is an emotionally immature cultural response to the human experience. Because the reality is, no, we can't. And it's funny, you know, I talk a lot, going back to the book, you know, my mother-in-law who has been one of my great teachers about just life. 

And one of the things you know, she often said was, I'd be like, “Ok, well…” as simple as “I'm going to go get bread” and” I'll get some cheese and I'll be back at this time.” And she will literally respond to me “if God wants.” And I’d be like oh my God, this is such Sicilian pathos here. What the hell. If God wants? Like, no, I’m just going to get the bread, and the cheese and the olives.

Audra: I'm pretty sure. And she's like, “If God wants.” 

Tembi: So unpacking that, at the core of that message is, “Honey. We don't know, you could walk out that door and we don't know.” And it's baked into the cultural language. It breaks into how people perceive the world now. Some people call that fatalism. Some people, I mean, there are many words, and by the way, it can skew into that, but at its core is a sense that we don't know what the next moment might bring.

And so actually, if it's, you know, there's a kind of divine or unspoken or unseen, you know, guiding force that is at play here that we don't have complete human dominion over. So go get the bread and cheese and olives. Hope to see you back. But it's a good reminder. You know, it's such a good reminder to like, hold it lightly, and be grateful.

Audra: It's powerful. It's a powerful reminder. And I wonder if your grief, the grief you carry this season in your life has in many ways or in some ways given you, I mean, you've walked, I can only imagine that significant not only pain and discomfort, but really having to rest with and sit in that space of the unknowns from moment to moment. And I think of you deeply with that, and it makes me think when you talk about giving birth to the show through COVID, how you came into COVID with a whole different understanding of the world and of this project of living from this perspective.

Tembi: Totally. And I mean, Audra, I'm sure you as well. I mean, any of us who walked the path of lifelong, life-threatening illness, who have lived at the frontlines of caregiving, who have interface with medical systems and hospital systems, and have tried to navigate mysterious symptoms, unknown outcomes. Like if you've lived that and that is your day-to-day. 

When COVID came along, I was like, “Oh, the rest of the world is just, it's like my experience is now global.” 

And by the way, the scale of that is actually too much for the human heart to hold. I mean, it's hard enough to hold it in an individual life. You know, I think it's why people are often, you know, hospital-phobic. I had friends with that when Saro was ill who were like, “I would love to come. I just can't come into the hospital. I just can't come visit because I can't walk into the hospital.” 

My first response was, “Oh my God, get over yourself, just come visit.” But ultimately, you know, what I've come to understand from a more empathetic place now is that, oh, what that really is, sure, the deeper fears about life, death, the unknown, the what it triggers in people. So when we were all living through COVID. It was like that spread across the globe. Like that was the energy of that was so intense. We were never meant to experience that on a global scale. 

Audra: And to be aware of the global scale, right?

Tembi: And to be aware of it. I mean, it was beyond. And so for those of us who I was both being retriggered by my own personal experiences, like over and over again, my old fears of like, Oh my gosh, what happens if we're going to? But then watching it said it was a great deal. So then to be still in the middle of all of that, masked, you know, with all the COVID tests, every and then I try to take a troop of 200 people into production every day for 12-14 hours a day and make a TV show. Was no small thing, no small thing. 

And the ways in which the subject matter of what we were filming and what story we're seeking to tell touched every individual crew member on that set. So it wasn't just the story that was playing out on screen with the actors, with the costumes and wardrobe and the given circumstance. But there were people who were our prop masters, who were our wardrobe designers, who were hairstylists who were lighting people. 

Everybody's had a life. Everybody knows someone. Everybody has a mom or brother, sister, a child, an uncle, a friend who has walked a path. And so suddenly being on set would bring that up. 

And so I was as the creator and as a producer and as the writer sort of aware of both the ways in which my own stuff was coming out, but also the ways in which we're having to wrap our hearts and minds around the whole troop of people now because we're all in this big human experience together. And some days it was like, let's just send love and light to everybody here on the set because we are trying to do something really brave right now in unprecedented circumstances.

Audra: That will only radiate from there. And I'm thinking put that on the world stage where I feel the fear, distrust of the government, the political aspects of it, the vitriol against the health care system and vaccines and change and all of that. What I'm seeing in that is grief, unacknowledged grief, pain, fear.

Tembi: Completely. I have been saying for years and I think we ought we talk about it now. By the way, I don't claim it as my own original idea, but it was something that an idea I came across very early in my grief, specifically in communities who lacked access to proper grief counseling services were able to take off after that, I had the privilege of time after Saro passed to care for myself. That is a privilege and a gift. 

Most people do not have that and particularly in certain underserved communities, and that unexpressed grief becomes a medical crisis. It shows up as diabetes. It shows up as anxiety. It shows up as depression. And so that unexpressed grief has many faces and in this a public health crisis. It is a public health crisis. When I see the enraged person doing whatever out in the world, supermarket, road, you know, wherever I'm like, “Um, there's some stuff going on underneath all of that.”

Audra: Trauma trigger, right? Whatever, whatever that might be. Right. Unaddressed, unacknowledged, unseen, unheard.

Tembi: Unheard, unseen. And by the way, because there were days you and I, you know, I touch on this a little bit in the book. Early on in my grief, I felt like an insane person. I felt so untethered. So literally every particle of my physical form was like floating outside of me. It felt so strange to be alive in the world when I was in so much pain, and the person who was my person was no longer here. 

If that made me feel so quote-unquote crazy, if you will, or outside of myself and I have the resource of time. I had therapy. I went to grief counseling. I had close family and friends. I had people leaving soup on my door every day. I had a career that could wait for me. I had the privilege of all of that and I still felt as unmoored as I did. 

Imagine the human, imagine the person, which is the majority of our society who does not have that level of care. So the one thing the pandemic has taught us is it allowed us to give it a space and public conversations about this. You know, when we were talking about this five, six years ago, we were like, over in a corner. You know, just talking about it, like trying to go, “Hey world. Pay attention to this thing because it's kind of like in the human experience and we all need to be dealing with it.” 

And when the pandemic hit, I think we all were able to acknowledge that in a new and deeper way, and the question remains for us as a society and as a globe, will we keep the conversation going? Will we enact change that makes the path easier? 

You said something so wise to me many years ago, and I've never forgotten it. You said, “We, with the work of MaxLove, the idea is that we want to make the path easier for the people who come behind us.” I mean those are not your exact words, but the sentiment. That's what I heard and that has always stayed with me, always stayed with me. 

And so my question to all of us as a society across the globe is, will we make it easier for the generations who are going to come behind us? Or will we sit deaf, mute, blind, you know, dumb to our present reality, continue the status quo and not really change things. And that can seem so big and seems so large and it is. But it’s also super micro. You can do it on a daily basis in your own life and in your own community. It has exponential things that there is nothing. 

The pandemic taught us that too because I will tell you, you know, to get political for five seconds. What I saw was not far from my home, a block away, people taking to the streets and mass protests for things that did not feel right to them anymore. And so whereas before people have been dormant and willing to sort of go along to get along, willing to not really plugin or turn a cheek or turn a deaf ear to the outcries of their fellow citizens, suddenly they couldn't. And so we know that and that happened with micro-changes with a big catalyst, big catalyst. 

The catalyst of not just the pandemic, but violence enacted by the people who are tasked to protect us. But we saw what happens when we do really, really, really stand up at the individual level. And so I say, will we continue to do that around this conversation, basic health care, and mental services for those folks, when we are grieving. 

No one is going to get to this life without losing someone. You just won't. You will at some point. I saw my own health decline and change, meaning I was more anxious. Nutrition was really hard for me. You know, I was in and out of life. I just, I couldn't sleep. All of those things have a net effect on your health. So they become a public health crisis, not just a mental health crisis, but actually, you know, a public health crisis.

Audra: It's, I think, a perfect way to kind of close this out for at least today. It really speaks to how as we start to show up, as we start to break the cycles and seek change in our own lives, which starts with our work. And it starts with how we show up in the world and show up with those immediately around us and then into our community. We become paradigm shifters. Our communities really start to make change, and I can't agree with you more that this is a part of the COVID, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, our response to injustice and inequity where I was raised in a time of silence. I was raised in a time when people said, This isn't our business and we're coming to learn, this is our business. This is all of our business.

Tembi: It’s all of our business. Every day we are out here co-creating the world we deem acceptable to live in. So are we co-creating a world that we say, it is acceptable to wear every day that we don't do something or we do something? We are co-creating a world that we all will live in and that our children will live in and our grandchildren. And that is everything from the climate to what is happening politically, to what is happening socially and economically. It is top to bottom. 

And I, you know, that idea that we cannot be siloed and be a unified nation and people all with, you know, our hearts beating and pulsing as one global being who is just trying to like, move through this life on the planet for the short time that we're here.

Audra: Simultaneously, you and I right now. 

Tembi: Right. 

Audra: It's a blip on the timeline, right.

Tembi: Yeah. Yeah.

Audra: But, this is it. This is it. This is what we have. 

Tembi: This is what we have. 

Audra: Yeah. And this is what we have to give and to bring and to share and to build. And it is on us. And to hear this from you, to hear this all come together in this powerful way, I'm hearing the most powerful, impassioned, loving, grace-filled call to action from you. And this is a part of your power, just one facet of your power. And you still live full tilt and the part of that power so that you bring us in and that you bring to the world. You bring your experiences to the world. 

And I think you show that we can bring voice without vitriol. We can bring power without. I don't know how to put it, but it's just the way that you're able to kind of like help, folks see, we're all a part of this, and it's incumbent on all of us to show up. Now let's do it. Let's start with our little steps at home. Let's start here, how we respond in every given, any sticky, difficult situation and we build from there.

Tembi: And do. Practice that discomfort right in your own home and space. Practice it right here. Try it on.

Audra: It's beautiful. So I know that you've got to go. And we could talk probably for another few podcasts. And I know we'll get to do it again. And Justin always ends with three questions. I'm just going to end with one because I feel like we've had such a powerful, really beautiful end to this.

Tembi: I hope I'm ready.  

Audra: What Post-it would you put on every parent's fridge today if you could give the gift of a Post-it note message? What would it be? 

Tembi: Oh my gosh. Oh my God. Oh my God. “Just listen.” Just listen. That is the post. It's the thing. Yeah. Yes. Just listen, because there are times when I know I'm certainly guilty of it. And if my beautiful child were there with me, she would absolutely affirm that sometimes you're talking and then you're going and you're really moving at your point what you need to get out there because you feel so much like I got to get this across to them, I just gotta let them know this thing. When in fact, I learned and I continue to learn that in the act of listening. True, true listening.

Something bigger and more expansive than what I was thinking is probably right here in front of us. But together, if I'm listening, there's unison and actually, something better will emerge. So I would say often just listen. Just listen, because it's so kids are finding their words. They're still and I mean, literally, they're finding their words. And I don't mean, like, you know, we say, let's use your words when they're like three or four, use your words. But you can still say that's like a 17-year-old. It's like, “Really? What is that feeling? No, no. Talk to me more about that.” 

Audra: Use curiosity instead of, you know, how as parents, we often walk into this very often how we're raised, right? Like by, oh, you feel this way, we try to give them words, right? You're feeling this way. And when they're little, there is a way of describing emotions. I'm not. I'm not speaking of that, but it's more like I have experiences trying to ascribe things, put words in their mouth. Like, I know what you mean. And deploying curiosity to give them room to speak their truth. 

Tembi: Absolutely. And by the way, their truth ain't my truth. 

Audra: Yes. Yes, yes. 

Tembi: And like nothing more than being, you know, and I write this in the book being the parent of a grieving child where she — it's sort of like, “Your experience is not my experience, Mom.” 

And she pretty much told me that at seven, she was hardcore. And she said—look, I mean, when I say hardcore, she was her authentic and most honest self—when she said, “You have not lost your father.”

Audra: I remember when you first told me this.

Tembi: Right? She said, so you don't know she was seven. So right there, like I could have been like, Well, I think, you know, you know. No, she leveled it, she said, Let's get real clear. And so that taught me, “Oh, I need to zip it. Observe. Observe, you need to listen because she's having a different lived experience than I am. And the best I can do is support her in her experience, not try to put on to her an experience that is comforting to me.”

Audra: Oh, that's it. That's it. That is the core truth of us, not a, we're not able to sit in our discomfort. We want this to be more comfortable for us, we’re triggered. We don't know why we're activated. We don't want them to be. We don't want all of that. All of the feelings, it's too uncomfortable. It's too difficult. So how can I make myself more comfortable? 

Tembi: Exactly. 

Audra: Oh, it's powerful. 

Tembi: So just listen, just listen. You know what? Hold on. Ok, Audra, this is crazy. You just said what's in a post-it note? I did not know you were going to ask that question. You released the questions ahead of time. I didn't read them. I didn't know you were gonna ask them. 

But guess what? Guess what? Guess what? This is actually sitting on my desk because I'm doing it. So here, guess what? I'm going to write on this post-it note. Just listen. I'm going to you know, Dr. Take-my-own-medicine. I'm going to write. Just listen. And I'm going to put it on my fridge. 

Audra: Will you take a picture and send it to us, please, when you do it?  It's so powerful. I was coming to mind and I know we've got to go, is that the mom in “Never Have I Ever.” My daughter and I flip for this show. It is her favorite show. The mom’s leaning into this, isn't she? 

Tembi: Elise, first of all, I love playing Elise. I love Elise with all my heart. She is, literally, she's every mom, she is and she's like, “Ok, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to try really hard.” Like she is, you know, she is that part of so many parents. And sometimes Elise just needs to listen, and she knows she does. It's hard for her. But she will try.  

Audra: The end of last season, Elise got it.

Tembi: I know, I know, and I'm coming back for season three, so I don't know what's going to be up in their lives for season three, but I'm excited to find out. 

Audra: Cannot wait and thank you for bringing so much joy and power and presence, light, your authenticity, all of the things you bring into our home without knowing it through our television and through the book, through our television again on Netflix is going to happen. You are, and I mean this in every sense across cultures that I could, a true blessing in this world. You bless this world by bringing yourself authentically forward, by bringing your experiences, by bringing your truth, what you see, all of it. It's just an honor to be here in this, in this blip of a moment in time with you and thank you for sharing your precious time with us.

Tembi: Let me tell you, I stand hard for you. As the kids say these days.

Audra: I thank you for that. We'll use it later. 

Tembi: Yeah, I do. I do. And so it is my honor and privilege and pleasure to be here. So let's do it again. 

Audra: I'd love to thank you again.

Tembi: Have a beautiful I'm blessed day. Thank you. 

Transcript highlights


2:34

Audra: Ok, so Justin makes the questions, and I mess it all up with conversation, so…

Tembi: I love it. 

Justin: Yes. It is a great dynamic. I try to keep the train on the tracks.

Audra: I try to derail us constantly. 

Justin: Visit all the small towns off the road, which is a great, yeah, it's a great mix. 

Audra: But I want to talk about From Scratch. I really want to. I know it's not what we're starting with here in our questions, but I feel so honored that you let us in on social media. You let all of us in on your journey. It feels so big to me. It feels so beautiful on so many levels because you have been so kind from the beginning of Max's diagnosis, really to welcome me into discussions of grief, to welcome me into your story, to you have helped me dig deeper into my journey and not just understand a search for a cure or not, you know, in a more dynamic view. 

Your book is gorgeous. It takes us through such a powerful life journey. Plus, I mean, you immerse us, right? And now you're bringing this to life in a show. Can you tell us about this process for you?

Tembi: First of all, everything you said, for whatever reason, in the way you lined up, I found myself getting super emotional just listening to it because I have been so in it and in the writing and then the sharing and then the adapting and then the filming, and I don't sometimes slow down to sort of, I'm not able to have that 30,000-foot view of the experience. I'm just sort of in it. And so every now and then when I take a breath and listen and like you, just that was a gift. Thank you for that share because it just made me sort of drop in and realize I have been doing that. 

Like, I have been intentionally, it sounds absurd because I wrote a book, but I have been intentionally sharing. But I have, and you know, it's been a ride. Unlike any other, it has expanded. You're talking about expanding. I have expanded far beyond my known capacity. Like I, I thought, I have capacity. Ok, I'm a person who, you know, if you take 10 people, probably out of the 10, on average I'm in, the two of us have got like a lot of capacity... It’s taught me that I've got capacity. 

And so, you know, it's been a beautiful experience, it's been a loving experience, it's been a hard experience, and in many ways at times it's mirrored my grief. But it's also mirrored, it's also spawned growth. Like the two things are always side by side. They just always sitting right next to each other. 

Audra: What's coming up for me is like hearing about the process for you of really bringing your book to screen and at the same time, I'm starting to think your sister is involved in this. And did she experience your grief differently? 

I'm going to cry thinking about this, like your daughter experiences differently? Like, it seems really big to me to bring not only the book to the world but then to bring this into the form that you're bringing it into now. So, yeah, keep exploring. 

Tembi: Well, I will say, listen, the writing and I could talk. I love talking about writing, and I wish I could say I was, you know, I've written one book, but I've been writing my whole life. So in a way not knowing, not with any professional intention or goal. It was just, for my own edification, growth, sorting through, like all the mental chatter and those doing that even as early as 14, you know, when I was like 14 and hating on my parents, I would like...to some degree, all of that was me trying to process my world and my lived experience. I've been doing that since I was really young, but it was only in my 40s and after a large life experience, being a parent and married and a caregiver and then widowed that I was like, “Wait a minute, I actually want to sort of not only document but sort of craft this life that I've had, like for myself.”

You know, writing is often making sense of a lived experience, especially with memoir, right? Memoir is literally about making sense and giving a kind of narrative to big life experiences. So that's what I was doing, you know, and I felt it was worthy of sharing because I knew that elements of my story were so universal. Like, I am clearly not the only one. 

But the things that made it kind of magical for me were that many people don't have all those things at one time, like, you know what I mean? I had this experience of a decade of full-tilt living, like full tilt everything. It was like motherhood and cancer and adoption and acting and two languages and food and college. I was like, “Whoa,” and I was like, “Oh, that's my soup,” right? And my fear when I started to write it was that no one would get it. It was like, it's too many things, it's too many things, it's not like, “Oh, she met a chef and she married him and that was great.” That's a story people can wrap their noggin around, right? 

But oh, wait, no, there's cancer. “Oh, oh, they're two cultures, Ok? Yeah, this is complicating it even more.” And then it just kind of went on and on. 

That's the energy that I brought to bare when I sat down to say, “Let me try to see if I can craft a narrative, a book, not just a single essay, but like a book from this.” And I said, Let me, having never done this before, let me just write the best book I can write for right now. I'm a first-time writer and we just write the best book I can write right now. And then I set my life up in such a way to kind of give myself the best shot at that. I kind of had to pare some things back to make space because I knew I was taking on a big endeavor. It was a very personal endeavor. 

And often when I was writing the book, I would have fights with my book, like, why did I ever think I could do this? Like, I don't understand where this is going. I'm like, one minute, I'm talking about being at a bar in Florence and like listening to David Bowie. And then the next minute, I'm making lentil soup, and then I'm suddenly in East Texas... Like, what is this thing I'm trying to write and it vexed me? Right. 

So you said, like this year, trying to wrap your heart and mind and you know the things you know about craft around all these words and events and memories and make history together. And so I got to a place where I thought, “Ok, you've done that. I succeeded.” 

It goes out into the world and shakin’ in my boots as it goes out into the world, because now it's not just me. I wrote the book, the room I’m in right now is where I pretty much wrote the book, here in my bedroom, in my car when my daughter was like, you know, at volleyball practice or, you know, whatever. I wrote the book on airplanes. I kind of like whenever the book wanted to come out, I was just, I made myself ready and available to receive it, you know, and to shape it. And it was very personal, very intimate, and I didn't talk about it with anybody. You know, I maybe told five people I was writing a book. You don’t go around being like, “Hey, I'm writing a book.” Well, you know, you just kind of get into it. One: because I thought, if I fall flat on my face, I don't want the whole world to know about it. And I have to be accountable to this. It's a personal endeavor. 

And then it did the thing that it did in the world, which it got picked up by Reese Witherspoon, Reese's Book Club and suddenly this very personal, intimate, private experience is now very, very public. People often think, well, that should be fine for you because you have a career as an actor and you're used to being in front of people. But those are someone else's words. That's someone else's story. I'm just sort of the, you know, the creative vessel and character who is bringing it to life. 

But suddenly, I was being asked to sort of speak now about my book, kind of, you know, the way I am now and from there Netflix came along and, you know, Netflix came along and now it's being made into a series and I'm adapting it with my sister. 

And so your question, my long way around is that what was a personal individual experience became very much a family experience again, in a different way because my sister and I adapted the book. She was right beside me through 80-90% of the lived experiences that I talk about in the book. And so for us to put our heads together as creative people, but also as the people who, you know, lived the events and adapt it, brought up a lot again. 

And I think we both have had to take care of ourselves through this process because in order to share about something and in order to write it or to recraft it, you have to travel back into it. And so it's been lovely to travel back into it with my sister because I'm doing it with a partner who I implicitly trust. We have the same sort of creative sort of sensibilities and language and approach, but we also have had to be very intentional about how we care for each other through the process.

Audra: I can just imagine and just feeling into this, I'm wondering what that self-care has looked like for you, if that surprised you, that facet of it. And I'm wondering if anything else surprised you? If it surprised you that this story really coming into the world, which is something that it sounds like it was not fully expected, if your feelings that came out from that also surprised you. 

Tembi: Yeah, it's been a mosaic of feelings. It has been everything from pure. I mean, every day I literally wake up like in this immense state of wonder, gratitude, and quasi disbelief. I'm like, “Wait, how did I get here?” And then I go open, I'm here, open, I'm here. And oh, what wonder is this? And from that place, I go forth and say—well, when I wrote the book, I said, “Let me write the best book I am capable of writing.” With adapting it for series for Netflix it's been a similar process. It's like, let us make the best series we're capable of making right now, for what we think the world needs right now. 

The fact that we began the writers’ room in 2019, the Fall of 2019, and I think you can see where I'm going with this right. We're in the writers’ room and we were about to break episode, there's eight episodes. Initially, there were going to be 10, but we were about to break, I think the second to the final episode and we got that call that said, “Everybody go home. We're done.” And we kept writing for a while as a team until we sort of had all the episodes laid out. 

And then everything went quiet as it all, as the world went quiet. And then Netflix returned to us and said, “We're ready to make the show.” So we've made the show. We've written the show, in the pandemic, and now we've produced and filmed it in the pandemic, so the self-care is happening on a couple of levels. There's the personal care of like, okay, we're the people who lived with this. We're being to some degree, not to some degree, off to a large degree entering back into those spaces. And when you write it on the page, it's one thing, but when you see it on set and you're like, wait, oh, in the 3D, this is it. This is what I lived.  But now there are other people playing the parts and you know, and so my sister and I would often turn to each other and just go, “Holy cow, what is happening?” And it has been truly beautiful and humbling. 

And every day we say, well, we've been given the privilege of this moment, of this opportunity. What can we do with it and how can we help to serve the world? And I know that feels like a big and lofty expanse, but I don't think you can write a show about love, grief, death, dying, and family and then produce it in the pandemic without asking yourself how can I serve the world right now? You know this isn't like a “Hey, let's tell the story to be just as fun.” No, it's like, “Let's share this story because.” 

And we really crafted the series without intentionality. I mean, when you pull, we had seven writers in the writers’ room together, and we're all bringing our lived experiences to it. When you adapt a story, when you adapt a book, fiction or nonfiction, it has to live in a different medium. So things are going to change. It's going to be fictionalized in places. But certainly, when you bring a team of other humans in, each person is adding their story into the story. 

So we had people in the writers’ room who had lived, who had been caregivers, who had walked people up to their final days. We had people who had great culinary experiences in their background, people who studied in Italy, people who, you know, knew about adoption and immigrants. So like everybody's plugging into it, it becomes this collective human story that has the essence and sort of given circumstances of my story like it kind of, it stays true to the given circumstance. But then it's really everybody's story.

Audra: So powerfully shared. And you answered the next question that I had, you know, kind of I had this sense of what we could all hope to potentially experience or see from this story and I was wondering what your perspective on that of like how this would land for folks, you know, like what the hopes would be with that, but with the shared collective story that there are so many facets we can all identify with.

Tembi: That's the thing that is my prayer and wish for the series as we continue to sort of we're in the editing phase now. And as it when it lands on Netflix and I don't know what the date will be, but it'll be, you know, next year sometime that viewers will be, some part of it, will speak to them and ask them if they walk away from the series, asking themselves “What more love could I seed in the world?” 

Audra: I think we want to put a pin in that, put a pin in that quote. That is absolutely incredible. And that hits me really hard, that it's something that like coming from the childhood cancer journey, all of the work that we do, what we've shared, you know, I think we share in these hopes of what we share with the world. It's a powerful mission. 

Justin: What I love about this entire discussion here is everything you've hit on goes back to something you said at the beginning was that when you started to write this book, you were feeling into the universality of so many of your experiences. And I mean, really, you described how there was so much going into this book because so much has happened in your life, but at each point, it's so universal. I mean, so I've really identified with this childhood of a kind of uprootedness in your childhood and then the writing and your story really feels like a project of growing roots, of becoming rooted. And so I'm wondering if you can say more about this because this really came through so clear in your childhood. 

Tembi: Oh my gosh, Justin, thank you so much for that, because, you know, initially when I was sort of thinking about the book and I knew Sicily would be this character in the book, I knew that this place that I returned to each summer, those summers, especially the first, the book takes place, the first three summers after Saro passed when I go, but I continue to go. I kept asking myself, “What is that return about? Like, why is this place so important?” Yes, my mother-in-law is there, yes, I bring my daughter to be with her grandmother. Yes. It reminds me of my husband. Yes, the food is good. And yes, the Mediterranean Sea and all of those yes’s.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. 

Tembi: Yeah. Well, what about it for Tembi, like deep, deep, deep down inside. And the first thought I had was that grief is very dislocating. It's dislocating in time and space. I think, for me that is my, and I don't think it's an uncommon experience of grief. You know, my own home didn't feel like my own home anymore. My everything felt both the same and completely different, and it was very disorienting and dislocating. 

And so having a place to go to where I could just be an anchor myself, literally grounded me. And so I said, ok, I get that from the grief perspective, why Sicily is the grounding place to sort of anchor myself. But then I thought, what and it was really the point in the book when my mother in law gifted me land there, and I really spent a lot of time in the writing of the book trying to unpack why that touched me the way it did. At first, I was just like, it's a great gift, but no, it really hit me in a primal way. 

And I realized that there was this young part of me from early childhood. That child of divorce. Lots of moving around. Different family makeups, that had been looking for a kind and quality of home that was consistent, that was ever-present, that was unconditional and unwavering. And I didn't have an unhappy childhood. I had a childhood, not unlike many people, especially American children, you know? Other parts of the world, people who might, you know, live in the same place with the same nuclear family. I had, you know, I had my own experience and something about when I was writing the book and I connected those two, when I realized that receiving the gift of the land was so meaningful because I was someone who had longed for a kind of home.

 I started asking my other questions about what does it mean to have a home? And I realized I'd been looking for a home in my relationships. I had been looking for a home in so many places my whole life. And I realized, let me lean into that and sort of weave that through the book. At first, I thought, nobody's going to get that because it feels too esoteric. But I thought I'm going to try to make that connective tissue because I feel like there's a part of us that always wants to be seen, heard, and witnessed for our experience. 

And for me, as a grieved, newly grieving mother and widow, I wanted to be seen and witnessed for that experience, for having been a caregiver. And now that whole part of my identity is gone. I didn't know what to do with myself because I didn't have that to charge me each day. And so being in Sicily, being at my mother-in-law’s table, talking to her, which I write about a lot in the book, she was seeing me for all of those life experiences. And in our conversations, she sensed this person needs an anchor. She just needs an anchor in the world. 

And I think that that gesture, because I can't say it's not some big palatial like, you know, plot of land, and it's certainly not like, you know, “Under the Tuscan Sun” with like a gorgeous villa on rolling hills and, you know, cypress trees and groves and groves and groves of olive trees. None of that, right? It's a sloping plot of land, but it was the symbol of it and also the gift of it that rooted me. And I think we all need to be rooted.

Audra: That is so beautiful.

Justin: I keep coming back to the childhood portion of your book because I really resonate with this. And then when you said when you were 14 and writing in your journal like, oh man, you know. 

So, you know, there's so much universal there. And then as you grow up, as you come into the world, you start to and then you just described choosing your family like there's a biological family. And then there is the family that you choose. I want to know more about this process for you or your family of choice. You know, how you've brought this into your life up to the present day. 

Tembi: You know, if you'd asked me 10, 15, 20 years ago, like I didn't even have language for it. I just, whoever I could be my most authentic self with, I was like, I claim you, I'm not letting you go. I'm with you. You are my peeps. Like, from here to eternity, you are my peeps.

Like, if I feel that I can trust you, be witnessed, be seen, and be authentic with you in all my goofiness, in my expansion, in my dreams, and my sorrows, then I think we're a tribe. Let's call each other a tribe, you know? 

And so I have this sort of family of friends and of course, with Saro, one of the things about marrying someone of a different culture and we, you know, not of a shared mother tongue, is that we do have to really choose each other with a great deal of intentionality because you can't rely on like, “Oh my god, we grew up listening to the same music,” or like, “Oh yeah...we had none of the same shared stuff.” Like, I was like, what? Who are you playing music? What is that? That sounds insane. I hate it. You know, but we find these ways, so I guess I began to sort of have a practice. 

A felt sense that, “Oh, I can be myself with you,” and I feel like that's the best sort of to me, litmus test for who you choose to keep in your life, who you invite in and who you choose to pull into your inner circle. And by the way, those people don't have to look like you come from the same culture you did. They don't even have to speak the same language. It's like, that's the one thing about my life that I didn't know that many years ago, but I can unequivocally say that now, that I did…

Justin: When did you discover that?

Tembi: You know, I think I've discovered it along the way. I will say one of the things when it really became crystal clear and conscious for me was, again, in Sicily. There's someone in Sicily who—I will not say their name—they live in the town and we see each other once a year. My Sicilian is very bad. My Italian is decent, it used to be better. But as years go by without someone to practice to, it's like I have to like, you know, I click into it when I get there. 

But we don't like a lot of, and she speaks no English. And yet when we get together, we have the best time. And what I mean by that is we each can go to like we can just drop into our most authentic selves. I realize, like, “How do I carry on a relationship?” And I call it a relationship. We like WhatsApp a couple of times during the year, the intervening year, Christmas and Easter, and then I see her in the summer. It's one of the relationships I really value in my life, and I look forward to our connections. 

So I thought to myself, “Oh, this is that example of choosing family.” And you know, and maybe also just into your question about the childhood I always went to, because I changed schools so often I was thrown in with lots of different types of people and lots of different classes. You know, middle class, the rich, all of it, people who were the working poor, then different races, everything in my own family, they're sort of that hybrid of folks. 

And so I feel like I never was someone who could spend my life relying on, “Oh, we all have to come from those that had a similar set of circumstances in order to be each other.” And I also understood that sometimes I was closer with people who were not like me, that I work with people who are my own biological genetic family. So right there, that also to me, doesn't kind of matter. It doesn't matter.

Audra: Did it teach you or show you to trust something in yourself around energetic connection? It sounds like with this woman in Sicily, there is a deep, energetic right. It's beyond words. Did your childhood teach you how to tap into that? 

Tembi: I think it did. I think it did. It's funny in the way, you know, as I did it now and think about it, I do think there was that part of my young, very young self who was seeking a place to be all of who I was. And so I was the kid, very early on, I was like the only girl who would play with all the boys on the block and all the other girls were like, “Why are you doing that? You're not supposed to play with the boys.” And I was like, “They are more fun. Like that’s who I'm going to play with.” 

Audra: I can identify what that. 

Tembi: They want to play pirates and I want to be a pirate. As long as I could be the captain of the ship, I will be there, you know? Yeah, I was very much that kind of little kid. And so I do feel as though being all of who you are feels so good, that I kept seeking out that feeling. 

And I think I've just been seeking that feeling over and over again because some part of me understood that I could be more of who I was, I had more fun, I was more capacious in the world when I could just be me. 

And sometimes that just wasn't the people who were maybe, you know, my first cousins or in my family. It was like other people. And now I was like, “Oh, those people can be family as well.” 

Justin: So staying on this line or this idea around your authentic self, was there a shift or a transition when you became a mother? Was that you felt something happen with the core? 

Tembi: Totally. Because then I mean, one of the things about motherhood that happens is suddenly your heart is like going along and you're like, “I am a loving full person in this world and that feels great.” And suddenly you have a child and you are like, “Holy moly, I have so much love, it's like bursting from me and I don't know what to do.” And it's like I’m scared, like, what happens if I break the person like you? 

Suddenly, the stakes change for me. I became a mother through adoption, that kind of intentionality of saying, you little person that we get to spend our lives together. What a joyous gift that is. And now I have the privilege and honor of caring for your little heart. And that, for me, was a lot about wanting to, and I think this is very common for most parents is that we want to give our children the things that we didn't have. 

And I don't mean things as in objects, but I mean experiences and, we want to heal parts of ourselves that were a little bit broken and didn't quite fit and all those things, right? And so you sort of, this child comes into your life and suddenly you want to down with all of these things that you didn't get. And then you realize, “Oh, wait, they're on their own path and they're going to teach me as much as I might and I hope to teach them.” I always say what I hope to teach her. You know, how I hope to guide her. 

Justin: Tembi, was there an aha moment where you're like, “Oh, this person is not me, like they've got their own path?”

Tembi: Well, you know, one of the things I will say for sure about, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, but coming to parenthood through adoption, I was always clear about the fact that this child is a human that I get to share my life with. But she is not a replica of me. She did not literally come through this vessel, but we are in a joint, beautiful dance together and the best I can do is to honor the soul and individuality for who she is. 

Knowing that there are whole parts of who she is that will, it sounds strange to say, remain invisible to me. And what I mean by that is to say when you get older, like my child is a teen now, and clearly, I know now there are many parts of her life that will always remain invisible to me. It’s literally set up that way for a reason. That's not a bad thing. B

ut I also think there was some part of me, you know, my mom still calls me that she's like, I don't know what's going on in your life, and I'm thinking to myself, “Mhhhmmmm.” 

I say that to say that, as I was aware of that even as she was an infant. I didn't have the, you know, often I think when you can look at your child and you see your eyes or you see your genetic code or you see your genetic imprint, there's this way that you kind of come to it seeing yourself. You know, I came to it seeing someone whose life was taken to discover and bloom in front of me. And that's a different experience. 

Audra: Yeah, it's also a mirage. And so I think that it's so powerful to hear of this from you because I feel like it's so much of our work as parents and that you entered into this relationship. This beautiful, loving motherhood relationship with this understanding is so powerful because for many of us, it's our work to do to kind of pull apart that veil and see that I've got to manage it, manage myself. 

Like you said, every single bit of healing and all of the things that I want to do through my child is my work to do and not through my child, right? Like I've gotta face it.

And it can be hard to see. It can be really hard to see through that. I think it's powerful to hear. And it sounds like to me, one thing that really strikes me is that you're such a courageous person, who strikes me as a cycle-breaker. 

Starting with your drive into your authenticity as a child and knowing you, as I've known you as somebody who has wanted to, it seems to me break the cycle of not talking about grief, of not talking about bereavement, of keeping these things in ourselves and keeping in silence. So I'd love to hear more about that and how maybe it even translates into your motherhood. But that feels like a theme to me that you've had the courage to say “There are a number of things that we're going to talk about and that need to be talked about in this world.” So I'd love to know more about this experience of grief and motherhood with your daughter and how you are bringing things to light.

Tembi: I can see that about myself now. I didn't. And in some ways, it's a lesson or an awareness that I've come to later in life. I never would have called myself like a challenger or a rabble-rouser or like, you know, get in there and mix it. But I think I quietly my whole life been poking at the bear kind of like food that makes sense to me. 

But I think you're right to me and often through my art and through my creativity because I think it was a space that I felt permission to play and to sort of push boundaries in. After Saro passed, the first thing I did before the book was create The Kitchen Widow. And that was it's a website that was really dedicated to caregiving and specifically families going through caregiving and grief.

 And that really was an outgrowth of me trying to find a way to bring my whole self as a newly widowed and a grieving mom to an act of service and had all of those things be an act of service. And I've always come to things from the service model, but that has really come from my grandparents, my grandparents top-down both sides, people of service in their community, right. Didn't talk about it and didn't walk around with the banner, you know, just quietly getting shit done. Excuse my French. Just out there serving, a very powerful model to witness growing up.

I think in some ways I saw the way you could affect change in the world, make a meaningful difference, gift people a kind of love simply by shifting things. And so one story I have is my grandmother. My mother's mom in East Texas was the kind of woman who often said to me, “If you see a need, fill it.” I've never forgotten that and I tried to this day to still live by that. And so to a large degree, the ways that my bravery, my courageousness has simply come out of “Well, what do I have the capacity to do right now? How might I serve this situation?” And you know, it's from that place that I take risks, you know, and often in service of love or anything else. And it's one of the things I'm learning now is to also do that in service to myself, my own care, my own family.


40:26

Tembi: When I first started writing, when I was taking classes at UCLA, I actually tried to write an essay about how with acting, it taught me about caregiving. And clearly, I did not do well in writing because nobody got what I was trying to say. But what I was essentially beginning to was this very idea; is that career, that showing up day after day, giving it your best, all the time, my integrity around my work and my artistry and that craftsmanship—I would not sacrifice that. I wouldn't do it half-assed. I had to be all in. But with the knowledge that I could be all-in, but it still might not be for me. It may not be my part and my time will come. 

And there's a kind of trust that you have to live with and that that helped me as a caregiver because it, well, we got to show up. We got to try all the things. We had to give it our friggin best. We got a turnover stone. We're going to really be fully open about it. We don't know. We just don't know. We don't know if this thing is going to work. We don't know how you're going to feel on this. 

We don't know if we make that plan to go on this trip that you'll be able to do it. But we're not going to not try. We're not going to not give our best and that mindset I got from being an actor. And so you call it resilience, and it was resilience.

Justin: And the parallels to parenthood of like, you could put yourself in it and your child is going to throw that food on the floor or they're going to refuse to do this or, you know, and then yet you come back day after day and you keep doing it. 

Tembi: Someone told me at—ah, I don’t know if you know, Soaring Spirits is an organization that serves the widowed people internationally, but also their families. And she said to me, the founder whose name is Michelle, she's actually up for a CNN Hero award. So yay, Michelle. But she told me, we were talking and she said, you know, with my daughter after her, she was newly remarried and she said her daughter was a teen and she was just pushing back and pushing back and pushing back. And she said the role is to put, they're going to slam the door. And what we have to do is just put our foot with our foot between the door and the door jam. 

You know, it's just, you just keep raising your foot in there over and over again, like, you're just not going to set it all the way. And that's kind of it. Like, that's a metaphor for love and showing up and saying, you know what, I'm never going to let the door fully shut. Like, I'll wedge my foot in there. I'll do it, you know, I'll be crippled and hurting but I’ll try!

Audra: I think this is so powerful because to me, it does speak to showing up and we're so outcomes based in our society that it's a really powerful testament to really, really showing up without that outcome or end in mind.

Tembi: Because we don't know. If you told me literally when they went, what was it for us, it was March 14, 2020, whenever they said, “Ok, go home. Oh yeah, this will be for two weeks.” Convinced, convinced it's going to be two weeks. I mean, literally, you couldn't wait that, you couldn’t move them off or that they just knew two weeks. 

So let me just say, we're all here to say we don't know jack, and you don't. Well, what we do know, the one thing we do know that I can say I know for sure, to quote Oprah, what I know for sure is that: how we show up and how we meet those moments in our lives make up the kind of quality of life we have, the kind of relationships we have and that's really the thing that we have say, that we have agency over.

I don't have agency over the weather, what my kid is going to do a week from now, where my career is, I don't have. What I have agency over is how I'm going to show up each day. And for me, that comes back to I find I work best when I come to the table with my most humble, grateful, and loving self. And by the way, that is a practice I have come to. 

So when I'm grumpy, stuff isn’t going the way I want it to go, I'm irritated, I'm exhausted. The prayer, the wish, the desire, label it whatever you want, for me is let me bring my most humble, grateful, and loving self to this. Because sometimes, like my personality is keyed up and I'm irritated and friggin don't want to deal with something or this is a challenge, or it's asking more of me than I'm capable of or I'm insecure about it, or I just don't know. So then when I feel that I just say, “Ok, what is my most grateful, loving, and humble response to this moment?” And from that, I don't know what it will look like, but it'll be better than if I didn’t.

Audra: Yeah, so you take a pause, you take a pause and you ask yourself that grounding question. And to me, that reminds me of one of my favorites, I feel like a lighthouse for me, has been the work of Viktor Frankl, A Man's Search for Meaning. And that concept that our last enduring freedom is our freedom to choose how we respond to any point of stimulus. That's what I'm hearing from you. And the power of it, the power of being and why is it in this society we are taught that if you don't have an immediate come back response that you get in the water? 

Tembi: You know what, because that is an emotionally immature cultural response to the human experience. Because the reality is, no, we can't. And it's funny, you know, I talk a lot, going back to the book, you know, my mother-in-law who has been one of my great teachers about just life. 

And one of the things you know, she often said was, I'd be like, “Ok, well…” as simple as “I'm going to go get bread” and” I'll get some cheese and I'll be back at this time.” And she will literally respond to me “if God wants.” And I’d be like oh my God, this is such Sicilian pathos here. What the hell. If God wants? Like, no, I’m just going to get the bread, and the cheese and the olives.

Audra: I'm pretty sure. And she's like, “If God wants.” 

Tembi: So unpacking that, at the core of that message is, “Honey. We don't know, you could walk out that door and we don't know.” And it's baked into the cultural language. It breaks into how people perceive the world now. Some people call that fatalism. Some people, I mean, there are many words, and by the way, it can skew into that, but at its core is a sense that we don't know what the next moment might bring.

And so actually, if it's, you know, there's a kind of divine or unspoken or unseen, you know, guiding force that is at play here that we don't have complete human dominion over. So go get the bread and cheese and olives. Hope to see you back. But it's a good reminder. You know, it's such a good reminder to like, hold it lightly, and be grateful.

Audra: It's powerful. It's a powerful reminder. And I wonder if your grief, the grief you carry this season in your life has in many ways or in some ways given you, I mean, you've walked, I can only imagine that significant not only pain and discomfort, but really having to rest with and sit in that space of the unknowns from moment to moment. And I think of you deeply with that, and it makes me think when you talk about giving birth to the show through COVID, how you came into COVID with a whole different understanding of the world and of this project of living from this perspective.

Tembi: Totally. And I mean, Audra, I'm sure you as well. I mean, any of us who walked the path of lifelong, life-threatening illness, who have lived at the frontlines of caregiving, who have interface with medical systems and hospital systems, and have tried to navigate mysterious symptoms, unknown outcomes. Like if you've lived that and that is your day-to-day. 

When COVID came along, I was like, “Oh, the rest of the world is just, it's like my experience is now global.” 

And by the way, the scale of that is actually too much for the human heart to hold. I mean, it's hard enough to hold it in an individual life. You know, I think it's why people are often, you know, hospital-phobic. I had friends with that when Saro was ill who were like, “I would love to come. I just can't come into the hospital. I just can't come visit because I can't walk into the hospital.” 

My first response was, “Oh my God, get over yourself, just come visit.” But ultimately, you know, what I've come to understand from a more empathetic place now is that, oh, what that really is, sure, the deeper fears about life, death, the unknown, the what it triggers in people. So when we were all living through COVID. It was like that spread across the globe. Like that was the energy of that was so intense. We were never meant to experience that on a global scale. 

Audra: And to be aware of the global scale, right?

Tembi: And to be aware of it. I mean, it was beyond. And so for those of us who I was both being retriggered by my own personal experiences, like over and over again, my old fears of like, Oh my gosh, what happens if we're going to? But then watching it said it was a great deal. So then to be still in the middle of all of that, masked, you know, with all the COVID tests, every and then I try to take a troop of 200 people into production every day for 12-14 hours a day and make a TV show. Was no small thing, no small thing. 

And the ways in which the subject matter of what we were filming and what story we're seeking to tell touched every individual crew member on that set. So it wasn't just the story that was playing out on screen with the actors, with the costumes and wardrobe and the given circumstance. But there were people who were our prop masters, who were our wardrobe designers, who were hairstylists who were lighting people. 

Everybody's had a life. Everybody knows someone. Everybody has a mom or brother, sister, a child, an uncle, a friend who has walked a path. And so suddenly being on set would bring that up. 

And so I was as the creator and as a producer and as the writer sort of aware of both the ways in which my own stuff was coming out, but also the ways in which we're having to wrap our hearts and minds around the whole troop of people now because we're all in this big human experience together. And some days it was like, let's just send love and light to everybody here on the set because we are trying to do something really brave right now in unprecedented circumstances.

Audra: That will only radiate from there. And I'm thinking put that on the world stage where I feel the fear, distrust of the government, the political aspects of it, the vitriol against the health care system and vaccines and change and all of that. What I'm seeing in that is grief, unacknowledged grief, pain, fear.

Tembi: Completely. I have been saying for years and I think we ought we talk about it now. By the way, I don't claim it as my own original idea, but it was something that an idea I came across very early in my grief, specifically in communities who lacked access to proper grief counseling services were able to take off after that, I had the privilege of time after Saro passed to care for myself. That is a privilege and a gift. 

Most people do not have that and particularly in certain underserved communities, and that unexpressed grief becomes a medical crisis. It shows up as diabetes. It shows up as anxiety. It shows up as depression. And so that unexpressed grief has many faces and in this a public health crisis. It is a public health crisis. When I see the enraged person doing whatever out in the world, supermarket, road, you know, wherever I'm like, “Um, there's some stuff going on underneath all of that.”

Audra: Trauma trigger, right? Whatever, whatever that might be. Right. Unaddressed, unacknowledged, unseen, unheard.

Tembi: Unheard, unseen. And by the way, because there were days you and I, you know, I touch on this a little bit in the book. Early on in my grief, I felt like an insane person. I felt so untethered. So literally every particle of my physical form was like floating outside of me. It felt so strange to be alive in the world when I was in so much pain, and the person who was my person was no longer here. 

If that made me feel so quote-unquote crazy, if you will, or outside of myself and I have the resource of time. I had therapy. I went to grief counseling. I had close family and friends. I had people leaving soup on my door every day. I had a career that could wait for me. I had the privilege of all of that and I still felt as unmoored as I did. 

Imagine the human, imagine the person, which is the majority of our society who does not have that level of care. So the one thing the pandemic has taught us is it allowed us to give it a space and public conversations about this. You know, when we were talking about this five, six years ago, we were like, over in a corner. You know, just talking about it, like trying to go, “Hey world. Pay attention to this thing because it's kind of like in the human experience and we all need to be dealing with it.” 

And when the pandemic hit, I think we all were able to acknowledge that in a new and deeper way, and the question remains for us as a society and as a globe, will we keep the conversation going? Will we enact change that makes the path easier? 

You said something so wise to me many years ago, and I've never forgotten it. You said, “We, with the work of MaxLove, the idea is that we want to make the path easier for the people who come behind us.” I mean those are not your exact words, but the sentiment. That's what I heard and that has always stayed with me, always stayed with me. 

And so my question to all of us as a society across the globe is, will we make it easier for the generations who are going to come behind us? Or will we sit deaf, mute, blind, you know, dumb to our present reality, continue the status quo and not really change things. And that can seem so big and seems so large and it is. But it’s also super micro. You can do it on a daily basis in your own life and in your own community. It has exponential things that there is nothing. 

The pandemic taught us that too because I will tell you, you know, to get political for five seconds. What I saw was not far from my home, a block away, people taking to the streets and mass protests for things that did not feel right to them anymore. And so whereas before people have been dormant and willing to sort of go along to get along, willing to not really plugin or turn a cheek or turn a deaf ear to the outcries of their fellow citizens, suddenly they couldn't. And so we know that and that happened with micro-changes with a big catalyst, big catalyst. 

The catalyst of not just the pandemic, but violence enacted by the people who are tasked to protect us. But we saw what happens when we do really, really, really stand up at the individual level. And so I say, will we continue to do that around this conversation, basic health care, and mental services for those folks, when we are grieving. 

No one is going to get to this life without losing someone. You just won't. You will at some point. I saw my own health decline and change, meaning I was more anxious. Nutrition was really hard for me. You know, I was in and out of life. I just, I couldn't sleep. All of those things have a net effect on your health. So they become a public health crisis, not just a mental health crisis, but actually, you know, a public health crisis.

Audra: It's, I think, a perfect way to kind of close this out for at least today. It really speaks to how as we start to show up, as we start to break the cycles and seek change in our own lives, which starts with our work. And it starts with how we show up in the world and show up with those immediately around us and then into our community. We become paradigm shifters. Our communities really start to make change, and I can't agree with you more that this is a part of the COVID, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, our response to injustice and inequity where I was raised in a time of silence. I was raised in a time when people said, This isn't our business and we're coming to learn, this is our business. This is all of our business.

Tembi: It’s all of our business. Every day we are out here co-creating the world we deem acceptable to live in. So are we co-creating a world that we say, it is acceptable to wear every day that we don't do something or we do something? We are co-creating a world that we all will live in and that our children will live in and our grandchildren. And that is everything from the climate to what is happening politically, to what is happening socially and economically. It is top to bottom. 

And I, you know, that idea that we cannot be siloed and be a unified nation and people all with, you know, our hearts beating and pulsing as one global being who is just trying to like, move through this life on the planet for the short time that we're here.

Audra: Simultaneously, you and I right now. 

Tembi: Right. 

Audra: It's a blip on the timeline, right.

Tembi: Yeah. Yeah.

Audra: But, this is it. This is it. This is what we have. 

Tembi: This is what we have. 

Audra: Yeah. And this is what we have to give and to bring and to share and to build. And it is on us. And to hear this from you, to hear this all come together in this powerful way, I'm hearing the most powerful, impassioned, loving, grace-filled call to action from you. And this is a part of your power, just one facet of your power. And you still live full tilt and the part of that power so that you bring us in and that you bring to the world. You bring your experiences to the world. 

And I think you show that we can bring voice without vitriol. We can bring power without. I don't know how to put it, but it's just the way that you're able to kind of like help, folks see, we're all a part of this, and it's incumbent on all of us to show up. Now let's do it. Let's start with our little steps at home. Let's start here, how we respond in every given, any sticky, difficult situation and we build from there.

Tembi: And do. Practice that discomfort right in your own home and space. Practice it right here. Try it on.

Audra: It's beautiful. So I know that you've got to go. And we could talk probably for another few podcasts. And I know we'll get to do it again. And Justin always ends with three questions. I'm just going to end with one because I feel like we've had such a powerful, really beautiful end to this.

Tembi: I hope I'm ready.  

Audra: What Post-it would you put on every parent's fridge today if you could give the gift of a Post-it note message? What would it be? 

Tembi: Oh my gosh. Oh my God. Oh my God. “Just listen.” Just listen. That is the post. It's the thing. Yeah. Yes. Just listen, because there are times when I know I'm certainly guilty of it. And if my beautiful child were there with me, she would absolutely affirm that sometimes you're talking and then you're going and you're really moving at your point what you need to get out there because you feel so much like I got to get this across to them, I just gotta let them know this thing. When in fact, I learned and I continue to learn that in the act of listening. True, true listening.

Something bigger and more expansive than what I was thinking is probably right here in front of us. But together, if I'm listening, there's unison and actually, something better will emerge. So I would say often just listen. Just listen, because it's so kids are finding their words. They're still and I mean, literally, they're finding their words. And I don't mean, like, you know, we say, let's use your words when they're like three or four, use your words. But you can still say that's like a 17-year-old. It's like, “Really? What is that feeling? No, no. Talk to me more about that.” 

Audra: Use curiosity instead of, you know, how as parents, we often walk into this very often how we're raised, right? Like by, oh, you feel this way, we try to give them words, right? You're feeling this way. And when they're little, there is a way of describing emotions. I'm not. I'm not speaking of that, but it's more like I have experiences trying to ascribe things, put words in their mouth. Like, I know what you mean. And deploying curiosity to give them room to speak their truth. 

Tembi: Absolutely. And by the way, their truth ain't my truth. 

Audra: Yes. Yes, yes. 

Tembi: And like nothing more than being, you know, and I write this in the book being the parent of a grieving child where she — it's sort of like, “Your experience is not my experience, Mom.” 

And she pretty much told me that at seven, she was hardcore. And she said—look, I mean, when I say hardcore, she was her authentic and most honest self—when she said, “You have not lost your father.”

Audra: I remember when you first told me this.

Tembi: Right? She said, so you don't know she was seven. So right there, like I could have been like, Well, I think, you know, you know. No, she leveled it, she said, Let's get real clear. And so that taught me, “Oh, I need to zip it. Observe. Observe, you need to listen because she's having a different lived experience than I am. And the best I can do is support her in her experience, not try to put on to her an experience that is comforting to me.”

Audra: Oh, that's it. That's it. That is the core truth of us, not a, we're not able to sit in our discomfort. We want this to be more comfortable for us, we’re triggered. We don't know why we're activated. We don't want them to be. We don't want all of that. All of the feelings, it's too uncomfortable. It's too difficult. So how can I make myself more comfortable? 

Tembi: Exactly. 

Audra: Oh, it's powerful. 

Tembi: So just listen, just listen. You know what? Hold on. Ok, Audra, this is crazy. You just said what's in a post-it note? I did not know you were going to ask that question. You released the questions ahead of time. I didn't read them. I didn't know you were gonna ask them. 

But guess what? Guess what? Guess what? This is actually sitting on my desk because I'm doing it. So here, guess what? I'm going to write on this post-it note. Just listen. I'm going to you know, Dr. Take-my-own-medicine. I'm going to write. Just listen. And I'm going to put it on my fridge. 

Audra: Will you take a picture and send it to us, please, when you do it?  It's so powerful. I was coming to mind and I know we've got to go, is that the mom in “Never Have I Ever.” My daughter and I flip for this show. It is her favorite show. The mom’s leaning into this, isn't she? 

Tembi: Elise, first of all, I love playing Elise. I love Elise with all my heart. She is, literally, she's every mom, she is and she's like, “Ok, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to try really hard.” Like she is, you know, she is that part of so many parents. And sometimes Elise just needs to listen, and she knows she does. It's hard for her. But she will try.  

Audra: The end of last season, Elise got it.

Tembi: I know, I know, and I'm coming back for season three, so I don't know what's going to be up in their lives for season three, but I'm excited to find out. 

Audra: Cannot wait and thank you for bringing so much joy and power and presence, light, your authenticity, all of the things you bring into our home without knowing it through our television and through the book, through our television again on Netflix is going to happen. You are, and I mean this in every sense across cultures that I could, a true blessing in this world. You bless this world by bringing yourself authentically forward, by bringing your experiences, by bringing your truth, what you see, all of it. It's just an honor to be here in this, in this blip of a moment in time with you and thank you for sharing your precious time with us.

Tembi: Let me tell you, I stand hard for you. As the kids say these days.

Audra: I thank you for that. We'll use it later. 

Tembi: Yeah, I do. I do. And so it is my honor and privilege and pleasure to be here. So let's do it again. 

Audra: I'd love to thank you again.

Tembi: Have a beautiful I'm blessed day. Thank you. 

Discover Nourish

See more
Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

Podcast

Condimentum eu tortor bibendum.

By

Jackie Kovic

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

Podcast

Condimentum eu tortor bibendum.

By

Jackie Kovic

Podcast

Condimentum eu tortor bibendum.

By

Jackie Kovic

Crockpot Turkey Breast With Grain-Free Gravy

Podcast

Crockpot Turkey Breast With Grain-Free Gravy

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes

Podcast

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake

Podcast

No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

Pumpkin Protein Smoothie

Podcast

Pumpkin Protein Smoothie

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

5 Things Friday: 5 Pieces of Parenting Wisdom From Busy Philipps

Podcast

5 Things Friday: 5 Pieces of Parenting Wisdom From Busy Philipps

By

The Family Thrive Expert Team

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

Podcast

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

By

The Family Thrive Podcast

Audra's Book Club: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

Podcast

Audra's Book Club: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

By

Justin Wilford, PhD

Podcast Ep. 25: Real Talk About (Our) Marriage With Jenny Walters, LMFT

Podcast

Podcast Ep. 25: Real Talk About (Our) Marriage With Jenny Walters, LMFT

By

The Family Thrive Podcast

5 Things That Could Be Contributing to Air Pollution in Your Family’s Home

Podcast

5 Things That Could Be Contributing to Air Pollution in Your Family’s Home

By

Jonah Yakel, DC

Give This a Try: Strength Training for Kids

Podcast

Give This a Try: Strength Training for Kids

By

The Family Thrive Expert Team

Crockpot Turkey Breast With Grain-Free Gravy

Recipes

Crockpot Turkey Breast With Grain-Free Gravy

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes

Recipes

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake

Recipes

No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

Pumpkin Protein Smoothie

Recipes

Pumpkin Protein Smoothie

By

Chef Andrew Johnson

5 Things Friday: 5 Pieces of Parenting Wisdom From Busy Philipps

5 Things Friday

5 Things Friday: 5 Pieces of Parenting Wisdom From Busy Philipps

By

The Family Thrive Expert Team

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

Podcasts

Podcast Ep. 26: Tembi Locke on Parenting With Grace, Growing Through Grief, and Thriving No Matter What 

By

The Family Thrive Podcast

Audra's Book Club: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

Pro Perspective

Audra's Book Club: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

By

Justin Wilford, PhD

Podcast Ep. 25: Real Talk About (Our) Marriage With Jenny Walters, LMFT

Podcasts

Podcast Ep. 25: Real Talk About (Our) Marriage With Jenny Walters, LMFT

By

The Family Thrive Podcast

5 Things That Could Be Contributing to Air Pollution in Your Family’s Home

Pro Perspective

5 Things That Could Be Contributing to Air Pollution in Your Family’s Home

By

Jonah Yakel, DC

Give This a Try: Strength Training for Kids

Give This a Try

Give This a Try: Strength Training for Kids

By

The Family Thrive Expert Team

Subscribe to get all the goods

Join for free
Login